Defenses prominent as No. 12 Utah meets Cal
Points could be in short supply when No. 12 Utah hosts California in Salt Lake City on Saturday. Both teams have built their identities this season around rugged defenses.
The Utes (6-1, 3-1 Pac-12) might have one of their best defensive teams ever under coach Kyle Whittingham. Utah has allowed just 30 second-half points through the first seven games. Opponents have had 36 total possessions after halftime and scored points on just five of those occasions.
Utah's finest defensive performance of the season was its most recent one. In a 21-3 victory over then-No. 17 Arizona State last Saturday, the Utes allowed just 136 total yards. The Sun Devils covered just 28 yards on their longest offensive drive, and Utah held them to single-digit yardage or negative yardage on nine of 13 drives.
Arizona State totaled just 25 passing yards.
"The defensive backfield was outstanding," Whittingham said. "The pass defense starts at the line of scrimmage, and our front four applied pressure all night long. They never let the quarterback get comfortable."
Utah has racked up three straight victories behind a defense that leads the Pac-12 in several categories. The Utes also rank among the top 10 FBS teams in rushing defense (61.1 yards per game), total defense (252.1 ypg), first downs allowed (95), scoring defense (11.7 points per game), third-down conversion percentage (.274), and interceptions (nine).
California is mired in a three-game losing streak, but defense isn't the issue. The Bears (4-3, 1-3) have held 14 straight opponents under 25 points -- the longest active streak in the country. Oregon State, in its 21-17 win over Cal on Saturday, produced only 282 total yards.
Offense has been the downfall for the Bears, who rank last among Pac-12 teams in both scoring offense (20.0 ppg) and total offense (324.0 ypg). Against the Beavers, California allowed nine sacks and averaged just 2.5 yards per carry.
"You have to run the ball better," Bears coach Justin Wilcox said, "and we took nine sacks. Some of that is protection. Some of that is getting rid of the football at the quarterback position. We have a lot of work to do there."
Both teams are facing question marks at quarterback heading into Saturday.
Bears QB Devon Modster left with an injury in the fourth quarter against Oregon State and is listed as week-to-week. Spencer Brasch played the final two drives against the Beavers, and he could make his first start on the road against the Utes.
"It's a tough position to be in," Wilcox said. "First time he's taken a snap. We'll keep working with him."
Utah could also be without quarterback Tyler Huntley while he heals from an ankle injury. Huntley sustained the injury late in the third quarter against Arizona State and sat the entire fourth quarter. The Utes could go with either Jason Shelley or Drew Lisk if Huntley isn't ready to go on Saturday.
Things are a little less dire for Utah on offense as long as Zack Moss is healthy. Moss ran for 99 yards and two touchdowns against the Sun Devils. His second TD, a 32-yard run, also made him Utah's career rushing leader. Moss has 3,264 career yards and is leading the Pac-12 with an average of 102.2 yards per game.
"That's just an outstanding achievement," Whittingham said. "We're proud of him, and he did a great job (against Arizona State). Those yards were tough, hard-fought yards."
California holds a 6-5 series lead. The Bears prevailed 28-23 in their most recent game against the Utes on Oct. 1, 2016.
--Field Level Media