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Previewing the Utah defense

The Utes boast an incredible run defense, and nearly the whole unit garnered All-Pac-12 honors.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

We took a look at the numbers and the tape to break down what you need to know about Utah’s defense:

Defensive profile

Utah does a lot of things well, but their calling card is an elite run defense. The Utes surrender only 101.8 yards per game on the ground, which is the fourth-lowest mark in the country. Opponents average under three yards per carry against the Utes, who tally nearly eight tackles for loss per game. Utah’s two defensive tackles, Leki Fotu, and John Penisini Jr., are among the best interior linemen in the Pac-12.

The Utes also boast the best red zone defense in the country. Northwestern’s defense is a classic bend-don’t-break defense, but Utah takes it to the extreme. The Utes have only allowed 17 touchdowns on 36 red zone attempts, which is actually pretty similar to Northwestern’s mark (20 touchdowns on 41 attempts), but the difference is Utah has only allowed six field goals as opposed to NU’s 13. Part of that can probably be explained by the randomness of college kickers, but it’s probably also safe to say Utah forces its opponents into kicking situations further from the goal-line.

When facing offenses like Oregon and Washington State, Utah plays a lot of 4-2-5 nickel, which makes their stout run defense more impressive. Safety Marquise Blair, a second team All-Pac 12 honoree, ostensibly acts like a linebacker, hovering near the line of scrimmage in run support. However, against a team like Northwestern, which doesn’t present the same matchup problems on the outside, I’d expect to see a bit more 4-3. Utah is a bit worse at pass defense, surrendering about 6.3 yards per attempt, but their defense has a propensity for impact play — the secondary registered 14 interceptions and the pass rush generated 35 sacks this year.

Players that matter

Nine (9!) of Utah’s 11 defensive starters garnered All-Pac-12 honors this year, including four first-teamers. Here’s a look at a handful of Ute defenders that Northwestern will need to keep track of.

Chase Hansen

Hansen, Utah’s rover linebacker, may be the team’s most valuable player. He was a quarterback in high school, then left Utah after his redshirt season for a church mission. Upon his return to Salt Lake City, Hansen converted to safety, then to linebacker, where the senior has thrived. He led the Pac-12 with 22 tackles for loss, adding five sacks and two interceptions. Hansen is an excellent athlete who, like any great linebacker, has a nose for the ball.

His exemplary 2018 season netted him second team All-American honors. However, Hansen apparently sustained an injury in the Pac-12 Championship Game that could hold him out of the Holiday Bowl. Head coach Kyle Whittingham told ESPN700 that Hansen’s status is still unclear.

“It’s a long shot, I can tell you that,” Whittingham said. “I’m still holding out hope. They’ve counted him out before at times and he’s made it back.”

He added: “Never count Chase out. If he’s ready to go and wants to go, he’ll go.”

For what it’s worth, Utah’s other primary linebacker, Cody Barton, was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention.

Bradlee Anae

Anae is Utah’s primary pass-rusher. A two-year starter at defensive end, Anae led the Pac-12 in sacks with 8, earning first-team all-conference honors. He also led the defensive line with 48 tackles. The junior is an athletic 254 pounds, but he’s also remarkably strong. Watch him body-slam Stanford wide receiver Michael Wilson here:

Primarily a right end, Anae will be attacking Clayton Thorson’s blindside on New Year’s Eve. Blake Hance will definitely have his hands full.

Jaylon Johnson

At the third level of the Utah defense is cornerback Jaylon Johnson. A former four-star recruit, Johnson was one of highest-rated cornerbacks in the class of 2017. He became a full-time starter in 2018, and rewarded his coaches with four interceptions, which was tied for the most in the Pac-12. The sophomore also tallied four pass breakups and 40 tackles. The highlight of the season came when he intercepted a pass on the goal line against Stanford and took it 100 yards to the house.

He’s only 6-foot and 190 pounds, but you can see how Johnson is unafraid to be physical with receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside (6-foot-3, 225 pounds). He bumps the Cardinal wideout off his route then jumps the pass to make the interception.

The Utes are a little more vulnerable through the air than against the run, but four of Utah’s five primary defensive backs earned All-Pac 12 honors.