SALT LAKE CITY — From one extreme to another. That’s the challenge Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and the Utes face Saturday at BYU. Seven days after taking on a prolific passer in Oregon State’s Sean Mannion, they’ll face one of nation’s leading rushers in BYU quarterback Taysom Hill.
“We’ve got to shift our thoughts,” said Sitake, who is well aware that Hill is a dangerous runner. He rushed for 259 yards and three touchdowns in BYU’s 40-21 win over Texas earlier this month.
Even so, there may be much more to it.
“We’ve just got to prepare for everything. Obviously his biggest weapon right now is the run game and that tempo that they run is quick, so we have to be ready for all that,” Sitake explained. “We just have to shift now to a team that runs the ball heavily, but at the same time they can throw the ball. They have one of the best receivers I have ever seen in college football playing for them and he’s 100 percent and I can’t imagine them not utilizing him.”
Cody Hoffman’s full recovery from a hamstring injury has given opposing defenses something else to think about when playing the Cougars. So, too, have weather conditions that are forecast to be more favorable to a successful throw game than BYU's first two contests, which were both marred by weather delays.
“We’re trying to prepare for both parts of the game, but we have to be able to take away the run game. That’s been our thing here. We have to try to make them one-dimensional somehow,” Sitake said. “It didn’t work for us last weekend. We have to improve on that. I’m just glad that we have an opportunity to keep playing ball and show that this defense is a lot better than we showed last week.”
The Utes surrendered 491 yards in last Saturday’s 51-48 overtime loss to Oregon State. Mannion inflicted much of the damage, completing 27 of 45 passes for 443 yards and five touchdowns.
“Right now we’re preparing for everything,” said Sitake, who noted that BYU has a strong running back in Jamaal Williams (326 yards) and a capable passer in Hill.
"You’ve got to give him at least a little bit of a break because he threw the ball in some horrible conditions,” Sitake continued. “Watching him on film he’s been able to make some good throws and he’s got a strong arm. So we’re not going to take that for granted.”
Although Hill has completed only 22 of 66 passes for 304 yards with two interceptions and only one touchdown this season, the Utes are mindful of his capabilities.
Utah defensive end Trevor Reilly believes they’re prepared for anything after opening the season against dual-threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton of Utah State.
“Hopefully we can contain Hill a little bit better than we did Chuckie Keeton on the scrambles and stuff,” said Reilly, who considers Keeton a mix of both Mannion and Hill.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham notes that the contrasting styles between Mannion and Hill will present some challenges this week.
“However, if you look at what we’ve done pretty good this year defensively — it’s stop the run — so maybe that presents an intriguing matchup in that respect,” he said.
While Utah’s defense ranks 11th in the Pac-12 against the pass (297.7 ypg), the Utes are third against the run (96.7 ypg). BYU’s offense, meanwhile, enters the rivalry game averaging 368.5 yards running and 152 passing.
“If you watch our film you’d think they would be really enticed to throw the football, but I think they’re going to stick with what they do best,” Whittingham said. “I’m sure they’re going to mix some throws in there and play-action pass and that type of thing, but they’ve got a quarterback who is an exceptional runner and I think they’re not going to deviate too far from that.”
Whittingham added that Hill, who is the nation’s fifth-leading rusher with 150.5 yards per game and sports an impressive average of 10.8 per carry, is a powerful runner that can’t be arm tackled.
Utah linebacker Jason Whittingham acknowledged that Hill put on quite a show against the Longhorns.
“I know that we’ll have to work very hard this week as a defense to contain him and not let him get too many big plays on us — especially with his feet,” he said.
That’s not to say, however, that the BYU signal-caller is one-dimensional.
“He can still pass even though he’s a predominate rusher. He’s a quarterback for a reason, which means he can still pass. But it’ll be different. Our pass defense still needs to improve, but I think it’ll be a little bit of a help this week with less of a passing attack,” Jason Whittingham said. “They can still pass, but we’re expecting a lot of rushing out of their quarterback. So we’re going to try to contain him and hopefully we can keep him from getting out of the gate too often.”
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