Oct 12, 2013; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Stanford Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) fumbles as he is hit by Utah Utes defensive end Nate Orchard (8) during the second half at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah defeated Stanford 27-21. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

USC vs. Utah: Previewing the Utes Defense

Oct 12, 2013; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Stanford Cardinal running back Ricky Seale (30) is tackled during the first half against the Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, Utah fields a defense that doesn’t have much to boast about. Ranking 76th in total defense, 62nd in rushing defense and 92 in passing yards allowed, the Utes sit on the lower end of defensive statistics nationally. Their record for scoring defense isn’t much better at 62nd in the country, allowing an average of 26 points per game. They don’t force many turnovers, though they have taken away ten, one more than the Trojans, to rank tied for ninth in the conference. However, the overall statistics don’t speak to the strength of individual units on the defensive side of the ball for the Utes.

The Utah defense leads the Pac-12 in sacks, good for 11th in the nation with 22 total. Leading the charge is senior defensive end Trevor Reilly whose three-and-a-half sacks and 58 tackles are tops on the team. The versatile Reilly can also shift over to linebacker when needed. His three fumble recoveries leave him tied for third nationally. On the other side of the line, junior Nate Orchard also has three-and-a-half sacks to his name. He has also wreaked havoc in opposing backfields with seven tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. Tenny Palepoi and LT Tuipulotu round out the line with 30 and 23 tackles respectively.

In the linebacking corp, Jared Norris, a sophomore and former teammate of USC quarterback Cody Kessler, comes in second on the team with 56 tackles including 4.5 for a loss. His leadership in the middle has been an essential part of the Utes defense this year. His partner in the center of the defense is fellow sophomore Jason Whittingham, head coach Kyle Whittingham’s nephew; the pair of them switch between the mac and rover linebacker positions interchangeably. Whittingham has 41 tackles to his name and has averaged a team-high 8.3 tackles per game after missing the first two games with injury. At 6-2 and 240 pounds, he has added a much needed physical presence to Utah’s second line.

The Ute secondary features plenty of defenders who like to knock down passes but don’t do enough to come away with interceptions. Utah is second in the Pac-12 behind Oregon in passes broken up. Senior Keith McGill leads the conference in that particular statistic while free safety Eric Rowe, a junior and former Freshman All-American, has the second-most pass breakups in the conference at six. Strong safety Michael Walker adds four of his own. Walker, an undersized senior, also lays claim to one of Utah’s two interceptions on the season. McGill is credited with the other. Rowe, on the other hand, sits third on the team with 46 tackles, while Walker boasts 41 and McGill has 21.

Projected Starting Lineup:

LE #8 Nate Orchard
DT #91 Tenny Palepoi
DT #58 LT Tuipulotu
RE/SLB #9 Trevor Reilly
MLB #41 Jared Norris
RLB #53 Jason Whittingham
CB #1 Keith McGill
CB #11 Davion Orphey
NB #25 Mike Honeycutt
FS #18 Eric Rowe
SS #15 Michael Walker

Check out the other side of the Utah matchup: Previewing the Utes Offense

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  • Ben Factor

    By the opponent-adjusted stat of footballoutsiders, Utah’s defense is 30th, and it’s about 40th by their other offensive stat. USC’s offense is 75th and 30th, respectively.

    The Utah offense is 15th and 4th, respectively, and the USC defense 8th and 12th, respectively.

    So basically, USC’s offense is something between “closely-matched” and “quite over-matched” against Utah’s defense, and Utah’s offense is closely-matched against USC’s defense.

    But USC’s offense has bi-polar disorder. What if the OL plays as it did against Arizona, which is ranked higher defensively than Utah? It will be the same Buck Allen (the AZ gasher) at RB, and the recently impressive Redd. If USC can run with that level of effectiveness, even the walk-on receivers can catch a few balls, let alone Rogers and Flournoy.

    I don’t know what USC will do about tight-end. Playing Greene is like playing another OT (worse things could happen, on running plays). Maybe USC could play Greene and send the FB on pass routes from the slot (that idea makes me remember all the drops). Isaacs? That’s a lot to ask from a new guy, and he may not even play. Then there’s that Wake Forest pitcher/QB/TE. Is he good in practice?

    Even if the offense were to show up, if QB Wilson is 80%, the USC defense would appear to be in trouble, and could blow the game. But if Wilson can’t really throw well, or play at all, and the #2 guy is weak, USC may reprieve its “Hendrix maneuver”, and pretty much shut Utah down.

    Peculiar game, with not fully known injuries on both sides, and USC having been bi-polar even when it was pretty healthy. Most writers and oddsmakers predict a close score, but there are factors that suggest it may not be close at all. The injury unknowns just make it hard to say which team would win handily. It could be either. Or…it COULD be a close game. Remember a couple years ago, when USC could just assume it would beat Utah?

    The USC offense will do fine, in light of the injuries.