No, the Utah Utes did not play their best defensive game in last week’s 52-45 victory over UCLA.
But regardless of the Bruins’ six touchdowns and 510 yards of total offense, Utah still managed to do what it does better than most every other team in the country: intercept passes.
The Utes picked off UCLA quarterback Mike Fafaul four times last week, and are now tied for the national lead with 14 interceptions in eight games. They also lead the country with 22 takeaways. Utah’s 31-27 victory over USC on Sept. 23 is the only game it has played without an interception.
Something, then, will have to give when the No. 4 Washington Huskies visit No. 17 Utah for Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. UW sophomore quarterback Jake Browning has thrown two interceptions in seven games this season, and UW has committed only five turnovers total, tied for second-fewest in the country.
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Utah will likely be without star safety Marcus Williams, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection last season. Williams is second on the team with three interceptions, right behind senior defensive back Brian Allen, who has four.
“They’re very athletic in the secondary, so those guys get all the credit, which is usually what happens,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “But I promise you — you don’t have a big-time secondary without some guys putting heat on the passer. He can’t hold it long.”
And the Utes do have 22 sacks so far this season, tied for 20th-most in the country. UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith noted that Utah’s defensive ends are particularly productive — senior Hunter Dimick leads the team with six sacks, and senior Pita Taumoepenu has three.
“They create a lot of one-on-ones,” Smith said. “They like to rush the passer with five guys. They’ve got some good guys that can rush the passer. … And then they challenge you in the secondary. You can’t sit there and hold the ball, but it takes a minute to get open. So that’s some of the reason for their success.”
The Huskies haven’t seen a pass rush as effective as Utah’s this season, Petersen said.
“I think across the board, in all three phases, these guys have put it on tape that they’re good. And it’s not, ‘They’re kind of weak in this area, they’re kind of strong in this area’ — they’re a good football team, and their record proves it out.”
Petersen also praised Utah’s punter, Mitch Wishnowsky, who leads the Pac-12 with an average of 48.05 yards per punt. “He’s special,” Petersen said. “Big-time leg and he really drives the ball. But punter, a little like the quarterback, you have to have everybody else doing their job. He puts it out there but they have really good coverage units and they cover well.” … Petersen has coached at Rice-Eccles Stadium once before: a 36-3 victory in 2006 when he was coach at Boise State. Of the atmosphere, he said: “I think it’s a great college venue. They’re real excited about their football. I think one of the things that’s kind of unique about it is, it’s a pretty big city there with no pro football. And so that’s the team. And they’re all there, and they like their football there, and it’s a good environment to play college ball in.”