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Utah football: Utes looking to pick up the pace on picks

Published: Monday, Nov. 4 2013 7:49 a.m. MST

Utah Utes defensive tackle LT Tuipulotu (58) and Utah Utes linebacker Jared Norris (41) rush USC Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) as the University of Utah is defeated by USC 19-3 in PAC 12 football Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah Utes defensive tackle LT Tuipulotu (58) and Utah Utes linebacker Jared Norris (41) rush USC Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) as the University of Utah is defeated by USC 19-3 in PAC 12 football Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to getting interceptions, Utah has a few — very few. The Utes enter Saturday’s game against Arizona State tied for 117th in the nation with just two picks.

It’s a situation that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is “very well aware of.” After leading the Pac-12 with 19 interceptions in 2011, the Utes have picked off just 10 over 20 games since — and four of those came in the 2012 season finale against Colorado.

“Through the years — other than the last year and a half — we’ve been very good intercepting the ball and taking it away,” said Whittingham, who noted that squandered chances have entered double figures during the shortfall. “I think it’s a matter of us not capitalizing on opportunities that are there, which is not good.”

Although fumble recoveries are at a respectable seven, the lack of interceptions has Utah’s turnover margin sitting in a tie for 113th in the country. The Utes have thrown 15 interceptions and lost two fumbles, giving them a negative margin of 1.0 per game.

Utah Utes defensive end Nate Orchard (8) rushes USC Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) as the University of Utah is defeated by USC 19-3 in PAC 12 football Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah Utes defensive end Nate Orchard (8) rushes USC Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) as the University of Utah is defeated by USC 19-3 in PAC 12 football Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

“Let’s hope it’s an anomaly that’s about to end,” Whittingham said of the lack of interceptions gained.

Improving the numbers, though, may not be all that difficult.

“It’s just one of those things where like you’ve got to make them when they come your way,” said defensive end/linebacker Trevor Reilly. “We’ve got to catch them.”

While noting that Utah has a good pass rush, safety Eric Rowe added that it really comes down to making plays on the ball. The Utes’ lone interceptions this season were recorded by Michael Walker in the win over BYU and Keith McGill in the loss to UCLA.

“It’s just a mindset thing. The coaches are putting us in the perfect position. We’re just not taking advantage of it,” said Rowe, who explained that the team has been working hard to rectify the situation. “I think once one comes down, it’s all going to come raining down on us.”

Utah Utes defensive end Trevor Reilly (9) sacks USC Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) as the University of Utah plays USC  in PAC 12 football Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Los Angeles, Calif.  
 (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah Utes defensive end Trevor Reilly (9) sacks USC Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) as the University of Utah plays USC in PAC 12 football Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Each game, he continued, is another opportunity.

“We’re doing everything we can and hopefully they come in droves because right now we’re in a dry spell,” said Utah safeties coach Morgan Scalley. “We’re doing great with sacks. But right now we lack turnovers and obviously that’s a huge reason why we’ve lost these close ones.”

Scalley noted that the players have been doing a lot of turnover circuits and interception drills in practice.

“It’s a frustrating deal. We’ve got to come down with them,” Scalley said. “The opportunities are there.”

Last season, Scalley said the Utes dropped 12-14 balls that were in their hands for interceptions. He estimates that they’re on pace for a similar number of missed opportunities this year.

It’s something that was addressed in spring ball and continually this fall.

“It’s a dry spell,” Scalley said. “It’s a long dry spell is what it is.”

Scalley attributes it to a combination of factors, such as Utah running a ton of man coverage and man-free schemes, which he noted has been good to the Utes as far as completion percentage. However, he added that they also run some zone and zone pressures.

“It’s not like we haven’t had our opportunities,” Scalley said. “The opportunities are there. We’re just not capitalizing on them.”

Although the quality and speed of receivers, the guys at quarterback, and coaching in the Pac-12 have made things more difficult than in the past for Utah, Scalley insists there are no excuses when it comes to getting interceptions.

“We’ve got to be able to come down with them,” he said. “Everyone else is coming down with them. We’ve got to be able to do it.”

No. 23 Arizona State (6-2, 4-1) at Utah (4-4, 1-4)

Rice-Eccles Stadium

Saturday, 2 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: 700AM

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