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Utah Emerges as Pac-12 South Contender Behind Defense and RB Devontae Booker

Kyle Whittingham

Kyle Whittingham

Two weeks ago, Utah scored a victory over a top 10 UCLA program that let the rest of the Pac-12 know the Utes had finally arrived to compete in the conference. After a bye week, the Utes showed true resiliency by edging Oregon State in double overtime on the road on a Thursday night. This week Utah will once again to make a statement in the Pac-12 as the Utes host USC, another ranked opponent. At 5-1, Utah is showing signs of being able to compete in the Pac-12 South, a division with more ranked teams than the vaunted SEC West at this point in the season.

The question remains though, how much faith can be placed in Utah to keep this going? Is Utah here to stay on this competitive field in the Pac-12, or will this be a blip on the radar? All signs seem to suggest Utah is not going anywhere just yet in the Pac-12 South. The recruiting has been improving since moving to the Pac-12, and the talent coming in is beginning to help the program go toe-to-toe with their new conference rivals. TCU’s rise in the Big 12 may be a bit more noticeable and respected nationally, but Utah’s transition to big time football is not to be overlooked either.

For Utah, it starts on defense and running the football, a solid foundation for any winning program in college football. Utah is averaging 210 rushing yards per game with Devontae Booker leading the way with 742 yards and seven touchdowns so far. That ability to run the football has helped take the pressure off quarterback Travis Wilson to do everything he can, although Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has now started to give Kendal Thompson a chance to play under center as well, while searching for a way to turn the passing game’s results around. Wilson has not thrown an interception this season, but his completion percentage has been less-than-inspiring in recent weeks.

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While the running game keeps the offense going, it is the Utah defense that seems to have carried the team early on. Utah has the Pac-12’s third best defensive unit, allowing 379.0 yards per game and just 4.74 yards per play. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in sacks with 33.0 in six games, an average of 5.50 sacks per game. Senior Nate Orchard has led the effort to bring pressure into the opposing backfield with 10.5 sacks. Orchard has stepped up to replace last season’s defensive leader, Trevor Reilly (team high 8.5 sacks in 2013).

The biggest area of improvement on the defensive side of the football though has come in the secondary. Last season the Utes were last in the nation with just three interceptions all year long, tied with Kentucky, Illinois, Temple and UTEP. This year is quite a different story for defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake’s secondary. Through six games, Utah has picked off seven passes.

The world is noticing what Utah is doing, but there is still work to be done in Salt Lake City.  The schedule sitting in front of Utah includes four games against teams currently ranked in the top 25 (No. 20 USC, No. 14 Arizona State, No. 6 Oregon and No. 15 Arizona), and a match-up with unranked Stanford sits in that stretch. At this point in the college football season though, why not Utah?

- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)