Utah Defensive Preview

Utah may be struggling offensively, but its defense is one of the best in the country. Read on to see the players that Arizona had to watch out for and what it needs to do to score.

As bad as the Utah offense has been this season, the Utes' defense has performed exactly the opposite. Kyle Whittingham's team enters its ninth game with the Pac-12's best defense in terms of total yards allowed, as the 325.6 yards per game it allows its opponents is good for 21st in the nation.

The strength of the Utes on defense is the front seven, as it has allowed its opponents just 91 yards rushing per game, which ranks it second in the Pac-12 and 11th in the nation in run defense.

The Utah defense has developed a reputation as a hard, tough nosed group that is very physical in the running game and has the ability to get after the quarterback in pass defense.

Along the defensive line, Derrick Shelby is the standout of the group. The 6-foot-3, 262-pound senior has racked up 29 tackles, with six of those coming for loss. Shelby has also recorded four sacks, and has shown an ability to be a factor in the passing defense with an interception, five pass break ups and six passes defended on the year.

Inside of Shelby is another effective player, 6-foot-4, 325-pound nose tackle Star Lotulelei. He's been very effective at clogging the middle of the line of scrimmage, with 25 tackles, 5.5 of those for loss, and half of a sack. Running the ball to the right side through Shelby and Lotulelei will be a very tall order for the UA ground attack.

At defensive tackle next to Lotulelei is 6-foot-5, 285-pound junior Dave Kruger. With 15 tackles, 1.5 for loss and a sack, Kruger has not been as effective as Lotulelei at stopping the run himself, but is pretty good at eating up space in the middle of the line.

Aside from Shelby, the Utes have a pair of defensive ends that split time but are both effective players. Joe Kruger, a 6-foot-7, 270-pound sophomore, will share time at both end positions, but he's proven up to the task at filling in on each side of the line. He's recorded 24 tackles, with 3.5 of those coming for loss and has also collected a pair of sacks as well.

Along with Shelby and Joe Kruger, 6-foot-5, 283-pound senior Tevita Finau has picked up three sacks of his own to go along with 17 tackles. With 10.5 sacks coming from various players along the defensive line, the Arizona offensive line is in for quite a test on Saturday afternoon.

Although Utah will start just three linebackers in its 4-3 scheme, the Utes have four players that have each been stellar this season.

The headliner of the group is 6-foot, 223-pound senior middle linebacker Chaz Walker, whose 69 tackles ranks second in the Pac-12. A former walk-on safety, Walker was a second team All-Mountain West linebacker a season ago, and is in good position to receive more recognition in his first season in the Pac-12.

At strongside linebacker, Brian Blechen is having an effective sophomore season after earning Freshman All-American honors a season ago. A 6-foot-2, 230-pound underclassmen who was converted to linebacker after being recruited to Utah as a quarterback, Blechen has recorded 52 tackles, including 5.5 for loss so far this season.

Blechlen has also sacked the quarterback two times in eight games, and is tied for the team lead in interceptions with two.

Matt Martinez will get the start at weakside linebacker, and the 6-foot, 225-pound senior has picked up 45 tackles, good for third on the team, and has also recorded 5.5 tackles for loss. The former walk-on has also picked up an interception and 2.5 sacks so far this season after a 2010 season in which he earned Honorable Mention All-Mountain West honors.

Although the Utah passing defense is not as highly ranked nationally, the 234.6 yards per game it allows to opponents through the air is good for third in the Pac-12 and 73rd in the nation. While it has faced some decent pass offenses in weeks past, Arizona will be one of the tougher challenges it has faced through nine games.

True freshman Eric Rowe has done a great job adjusting to the college game so far, as he's picked up 44 tackles this season, good for fourth on the team. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound safety has also broken up five passes and defended another five so far in nine games, but has yet to record an interception.

Ranking right behind Rowe for fifth on the team in tackles with 37, 5-foot-10, 187-pound junior Ryan Lacy is the team's best cornerback. Lacy has the team lead with six passes broken up and eight passes defended, and is also tied with Blechen with two interceptions. After not appearing in any games in 2010, Lacy has certainly risen to the challenge in his first season as a starter.

Opposite of Lacy is 6-foot, 186-pound senior cornerback Conroy Black. He's contributed 23 tackles to go along with an interception, three pass break ups, and four passes defended. With how well Lacy has played through eight games this year, don't be surprised to see Nick Foles test Black early in the contest.

Originally listed as the team's nickel back heading into the season, 5-foot-11, 190-pound junior Reggie Topps has taken over as Utah's strong safety and has responded well to his new role. Topps has 22 tackles on the year and has also added a sack to go with three passes defended and three passes broken up.

Keys to the game:

1. Protect Foles: Utah has recorded 23 sacks as a team so far in 2011, good for second in the Pac-12. With how good the Utes are at defending the run, the passing game will be vital for the Wildcats in order to stay in the game. If the UA offensive line can't keep Foles up right throughout the game, the Arizona offense will have a tough time moving the ball.

2. No turnovers: The Utah offense is one of the worst in the nation, and it will likely struggle to put up very many points. The Utes defense has forced 20 turnovers through eight games and is very opportunistic and will do whatever it can to make things easier for the offense. It'll likely be a struggle for Arizona offensively, meaning points will be at a premium, making each possession valuable.

3. Balance: Arizona made itself a bit one dimensional during Saturday's game at Washington, which allowed for the Huskies to key on the UA passing game and more effectively stop it. While the Wildcats will likely have a tough time running the ball against a stout Utah rush defense, but needs to attempt to move the football on the ground in order to keep the Utes honest.

4. Keep getting it to Criner: In Arizona's last two games, Foles has hit Juron Criner 21 times for 219 yards and five touchdowns, and its no coincidence how well the offense has produced in the past two weeks. Double digit receptions for Criner would almost ensure that Arizona will be in the game from start to finish with a decent shot to win the game.

5. Pride: With Arizona now likely out of the bowl picture following its loss to Washington, pride is just about all UA has to play for at this point in the season. With Homecoming in full swing and only a pair of home games remaining on the schedule, Arizona needs to come out with enthusiasm and try to win the game for all of the students and alumni that will pack into Arizona Stadium on Saturday and avoid letting an already disappointing season become more disappointing.

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