Breaking down the Utah defense

In a tough environment paired with less than ideal weather conditions, the Taylor Kelly led Sun Devils came out of Washington with a 24-10 win. Kelly, who had been sidelined since sustaining a foot injury in Arizona State’s matchup against Colorado, looked far from his old self but made enough plays to secure the win. This week the ASU offense faces another formidable defensive opponent in Utah.

Two weeks ago, the Sun Devils played what the coaches called their most complete game. One week later, with a quarterback coming off five weeks of healing in Taylor Kelly, the game against Washington was anything but complete, yet the high winds and adverse conditions could be to blame.

“That was pretty extreme conditions for the game last Saturday,” offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. “I thought there were a lot of things that we did well, but there are some things that we need to clean up. Taylor (Kelly) came out and performed and put us in a position to win the game there late in the game and made the plays that we needed to make. Obviously there was a little bit of rust there in the first game back, some things that we are going to get cleaned up getting adjusted back to the speed of the game. But he responded like the champion like I know he is.”

No team could have realistically prepared for weather conditions the Devils faced in Seattle last Saturday. Combine that with the tough Huskies defense and the 17 points the ASU offense scored doesn’t look all that bad.

There were yards left on the field and points left off the board, but what matters most is the notch in the win column.

“Coach Graham always talks about character, toughness and discipline and that stuff that you have to have on the road in those types of games,” offensive lineman Jamil Douglas said. “The crowd noise, the weather, all those things played a factor but we put it aside and came out with the win so that was big for us. We realized that some of those positions that we were in that game we could have avoided, but it’s definitely a confidence booster to come out with a win on the road.”

Preparing for Utah

On the whole, Utah is very similar to Washington on the defensive side of the ball. The Utes sport a stout front two levels of the defense, with a suspect back end. Utah is second in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, allowing 112.1 yards per game, while it is in the middle of the conference in pass defense with 264.7 yards allowed a game.

“Utah has a great defense,” Norvell said. “They are very aggressive, and they play as hard as any team we will play against. They fly around to the football. It’s a team that has gotten better each week that they’ve taken the field. They are going to play a lot of man coverage, a lot of zone and are going to mix up what they do. They have got great pressure packages. It’s going to be a physical battle, has been every time we play them.”

Technically Kyle Whittingham runs a 4-3 defense, but you will see the Utes come out in their nickel package often. They seem content to play out of the nickel set, perhaps due to the dynamic playmakers along the front four.

Utah is one of the best in the conference in forcing the opposing offense into turnovers. The Utes already have 13 turnovers on defense – five fumble recoveries and eight interceptions. Those turnovers, though, are largely a result of the best pass rush statistically in the Pac-12 at the moment with 35 sacks recorded.

Any time pressure gets placed on the quarterback, the balance shifts in the defense’s favor more often than not at the collegiate level.

Senior Nate Orchard leads the way for the Utes, with 11 sacks on the season. More often than not, Orchard will line up on the boundary side of the field, and will play both with his hand in the dirt or in a two-point stance. He’s got the speed and the quick first step to get around linemen, and the size – 6’4” 255 lbs. – to push them back, allowing him to make plays in the backfield.

Here’s a good example of just how good Orchard has been this season, coming in Utah’s win over Michigan:

Orchard is lined up in a two-point stance to the field side on the outside of the five-tech defensive end. This isn’t a formation that Utah has gone a lot to, but it shows just how versatile they can be on defense. They have an OLB on the boundary side with his hand in the dirt, but he backs up at the snap to play in coverage.

At the snap, the whole defensive line slants to the right and Utah creates a 2-on-1 with Orchard and the nickel back on the left tackle. Orchard beats him to the inside and eventually gets to the quarterback (below).

“The scheme that they have up there is designed to get pressure on the quarterback and it’s a lot like what coach Graham has here,” Douglas said. “They are well coached and that puts them in a great position to make plays.”

Utah not only gets after the quarterback, but it also makes a tremendous amount of plays in the backfield. The Utes have a total of 66 tackles for loss this season – a product of the aggressiveness of the defense and the downhill play from the linebackers.

Asked on whether it’s just sheer size of the defensive front that gets it done for the Utes, or if the scheme frees up space, Douglas said it’s a combination of both.

“They do a couple of things defensively, whether that’s field or boundary, and slanting defensive linemen,” Douglas said. “But that is nothing that we haven’t seen before and we will have a plan for that.”

Take a look at this play, coming in the win over USC last week, where the defensive line imposes their will.

Utah is in its base defense here. The player circled in red is DT Clint Shepard and he’s the guy who makes the tackle in the backfield.

At the snap, it’s already evident that Utah is winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. The USC line is pushed back and running back Buck Allen doesn’t have a clear lane.

The Utah line busts through and Shepard catches Allen three yards behind the line of scrimmage. He’s just one of the players on the front that consistently is making plays.

It certainly won’t be easy for the ASU rushing attack to get going against the Utah front, but because it is so instrumental to what the Devils do in their run/play action pass scheme, Norvell will need to be stubborn and continue to call running plays.

“They love to get after the quarterback and they done a great job of creating takeaways,” Norvell said. “We have got to make sure that we do a great job of protection and coming off and establishing the running game. You are going to get some one on one matchups on the outside so we just have to make the most of those.”

Replacing Westerman

Arizona State lost its starting left guard Christian Westerman last week to a knee injury late in the game against the Huskies. Redshirt sophomore Stephon McCray stepped in and played admirably, throwing some key blocks in the fourth quarter touchdown drive.

“Stephon is very intelligent, and a very hard worker,” Norvell said. “He knows probably every position along the offensive line and so he was ready for this opportunity. He made some big plays and some big blocks there in that fourth quarter and that was fun to see.”

Head coach Todd Graham already ruled out Westerman for this week’s game against the Utes. ASU has plenty of options to roll with on the offensive line to replace him: McCray, who’s also the backup to center Nick Kelly, Evan Goodman can come in to play left tackle and slide Douglas over to guard where he was for the last three years, or freshman Sam Jones who has also gotten some first team reps at guard in practice this week.

“I’m pretty sure they are confident in Stephon McCray playing left guard, but if that what it comes down to I’m prepared,” Douglas said. “I’ve been there for two, three years so we will see.”

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