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Utah Utes football: Defense shines during scrimmage

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 2:36 a.m. MDT

Utah football players perform stretches to warm up for a practice scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News) Utah football players perform stretches to warm up for a practice scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham billed it as the "most important scrimmage of the spring."

It turned out, however, to be the most lopsided.

The defense dominated in Monday's situational scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium. They tallied seven sacks, broke up six passes, had four interceptions, recovered a fumble and scored on a safety.

"I expected the defense to be ahead the entire spring, which they have been. We've been running the same system on defense for a lot of years and we've got a lot of good front guys," Whittingham said. "The starting point to play great defense is up front and our front guys are playing very well. So that was to be expected, but nonetheless we've still got to have more production on offense than what we're getting."

Quarterbacks Griff Robles and Tyler Shreve were a combined 17-of-28 passing for 154 yards. They were picked off four times and threw just one touchdown pass, a 5-yard scoring strike from Shreve to Jake Murphy during red-zone work.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham speaks to the team as they warm up for a practice scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News) Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham speaks to the team as they warm up for a practice scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News)

The only trips the offense made to the end zone came in the red zone. Aside from the pass play, the other scores came on runs of six yards or less by Harvey Langi, Thretton Palamo and Robles.

"It's not panic time," Whittingham said of the offensive woes. "But we've certainly got a long ways to go before we are where we need to be to compete in the Pac-12."

A healthy Jordan Wynn should help. And so, too, should a cohesive offensive line. Injuries have prevented the Utes from developing any continuity up front this spring. They haven't had a chance to use the same five much.

"That's something that's got to start to happen early in fall camp," Whittingham said while noting that injuries are just part of the game. "You've got to be able to adjust, you've got to be able to adapt and we've certainly got to do a lot better job than we have been doing up front on offense."

Former USA Rugby player Thretton Palamo watches from the sideline as the Utes scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News) Former USA Rugby player Thretton Palamo watches from the sideline as the Utes scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News)

Things appeared to worsen Monday when offensive linemen Vyncent Jones, Isaac Asiata and John Cullen all suffered injuries.

Whittingham, however, said early indications were hopeful.

"They're doing OK," he said. "It doesn't appear to be anything serious."

While it may have been the best news of the day on offense, there were some other bright spots.

Langi topped ground game with 68 yards on 16 carries and Luke Matthews led the receiving corps with four catches for 45 yards.

The scrimmage, though, belonged to the defense.

Senior lineman Tevita Finau stepped up with two sacks, a pair of pass breakups and a fumble recovery. He returned the latter 18 yards.

Utah quarterback Tyler Shreve fires off a pass during the Utes' practice scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News) Utah quarterback Tyler Shreve fires off a pass during the Utes' practice scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News)

Finau led a sack exchange that included Joe Kruger, J.T. Strong, Dave Kruger, Sam Tuione and V.J. Fehoko .

Freshman Terrell Reese topped the secondary with an 83-yard interception return. Linebackers Dave Fagergren, Boo Andersen and Chaz Walker also picked off passes.

"We still have a long way to go, but we're making progress each practice," Reese said of the defense. "If we just keep working well get there by the time fall starts."

With three more spring practices, summer conditioning and fall camp ahead, Whittingham notes there's a lot of time left to get things right.

"I don't think you ever feel satisfied with anything. Our offense is coming along, they'll get better," said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. "Our guys made some more plays today than they did."

Former USA Rugby player Thretton Palamo rushes the ball during the Utes' practice scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News) Former USA Rugby player Thretton Palamo rushes the ball during the Utes' practice scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News)

Even so, he added, things can always get better.

"Overall I think the d-line is the strength of our team. I'd like to keep building on that and get them better," Sitake said. "We're never satisfied. We've just got to keep getting better. There's a lot of things that we can fix."

Just ask offensive coordinator Norm Chow.

"We've got to get better," Chow said while noting that he needed to look at the tapes to get more specific.

He did, however, note that the offense started out well in the scrimmage but, obviously, didn't finish very well.

EXTRA POINTS: The Utes conclude spring ball with practices Wednesday and Friday, plus the Red-White Game on Saturday. … Whittingham said the junior Coleman Petersen is the leading candidate to handle placekicking duties at this point and time. … Junior defensive end David Rolf, a transfer from Michigan State, was credited with a forced fumble and a pass breakup.

Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow speaks with Tevita Stevens as the Utes warmed up for a practice scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News) Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow speaks with Tevita Stevens as the Utes warmed up for a practice scrimmage Monday, April 11, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News)

email: dirk@desnews.com

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