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A look at the Utah defense

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If you're looking for a visual preview of the Utah defense the solution is pretty simple, just rewatch last week's game against NC State. Just like Mike Archer's bunch, the Utes play a base 4-3, boast a stout secondary and a front seven that is susceptible to allowing big games on the ground.

Here's to a similar result...except better passing...and announcing

SECONDARY

Utah leads the Mountain West and ranks ninth in the country in passing defense, allowing just 151.6 yards of offense through the air a game. Only one opponent has passed for more than 200 yards on the Utes, and that was UCLA which passed for 290 while playing catch-up in the second half. No one else has thrown for more than 144 yards.

The standout in the secondary is senior free safety Steve Tate, who leads the team and is third in the conference with 42 tackles. Tate plays safety for Utah the same way Eric Wicks does for West Virginia, handling his coverage duties but also coming on blitzes and making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Last week against Utah State he made 13 tackles and two tackles for loss.

Tate has been studying film of Brian Brohm and the Louisville passing attack all week, but says that his main focus heading into the game is slowing down Anthony Allen and the Cardinal running game.

"First and foremost, we've got to stop the run," he said. "I know that sounds weird, but Louisville does run the ball."

Sophomore strong safety Robert Johnson has missed the last two games after dislocating his shoulder against UCLA in a game where he still managed to intercept two passes. He has practiced with a shoulder brace the last two days, and could be cleared to play some time before kickoff. Johnson was initially replaced by Joe Dale, but after Dale suffered a slight concussion (he's listed as probable for tonight), junior RJ Rice stepped up and made nine tackles and two tackles for loss against Utah State in a game where he made his first collegiate start.

The Utes are very solid at corner, where sophomore Sean Smith is tied for the league lead in interceptions with three. Smith is fast enough that he began his career at Utah as a running back, but he also possesses the size (6-3) and the leaping ability (35 inch vertical) to match up favorably with the likes of Mario Urrutia and Scott Long.

Drawing the unenviable task of shadowing Harry Douglas (assuming he plays) is speedy (4.32 40) junior Brice McCain, who leads the team in pass breakups. He is a true man-to-man cover corner in the mold of Cincinnati's Mike Mickens, and has been a major contributor during each of his three seasons in Salt Lake. He's had a lot of success shutting down the opposing quarterback's go-to-guy this far this season, but going up against the nation's second-leading receiver is likely the tallest task McCain has ever been handed.

"Hands down, he's the best I've faced," McCain said.


Harry Douglas...probably better than this guy

When asked if he thought Louisville might overlook Utah the same way they overlooked Syracuse, McCain was defiant.

"I hope not," he said. "We want them bringing their 'A' game. We're going to bring ours."

LINEBACKERS

Like most 4-3 defenses, Utah's is predicated on its linebackers plugging holes and making the majority of the team's tackles, so based on that school of thought the senior trio of Kyle Brady, Joe Jiannoni and Malakai Mokofisi are the players most responsible for the Utes' dismal national ranking of 96 in rush defense.

Brady, for his part, is second on the team in total tackles (39), and solo tackles (22). The most versatile of the group, he began his collegiate career playing receiver and running back on the scout team before finding his niche at the rover position. Utah's "Mr. Football" in 2002, Brady holds the state's all-time interception record with 31. This is the guy you can expect to see shadowing Allen or covering the flats when someone else is blitzing.

Perhaps the top defensive NFL prospect on the team, Jiannoni has started at middle linebacker since his sophomore season. He earned a second-team all-conference nod a year ago by notching 92 tackles, good for second best on the team even though he missed a pair of games due to injury. What he lacks in height - he's only 6-feet-tall - he more than makes up for in strength (rock solid 235 lbs), speed and aggression. Basically, he's the Utah equivalent of Lamar Myles. After coming through on his pregame guarantee of a victory over UCLA, Jiannoni suffered an ankle injury that forced him to play sparingly against UNLV and miss the Utah State game entirely. He is set to start tonight.

While Jiannoni was out, Brady moved over to middle linebacker and talented sophomore Stevenson Sylvester (backwards name much?) held down the rover position. Sylvester, now back in his familiar role as the top backup at each of the three linebacker positions, leads Utah in tackles for loss with 5.5, and ranks fourth on the team in total tackles with 31.

The starter at stud is Mokofisi, who has recorded just 15 tackles despite being healthy for all five games. He earned a starting spot by virtue of his size (6-2, 243) and experience, but if he doesn't step up and become more of a run-stopper then you'd have to think a younger guy with the talent of Sylvester is going to to start to steal more and more of his playing time as the year wears on (assuming Brady and Jiannoni are both healthy).

DEFENSIVE LINE

Unlike the rest of the defense, Utah's defensive line is young and relatively deep. The Utes have used 13 different defensive lineman in five games, and three of the top four tacklers on the line are either freshmen or sophomores.

Redshirt freshman right end Paul Kruger is third on the team and first on the line with 34 tackles, and has made three tackles for loss, intercepted a pass, and recovered a fumble. He's shown improvement with each game, making eight tackles two weeks ago against UNLV, and ten last week against Utah State. Kruger was a highly-touted quarterback when he signed with Utah in 2004, but went on an LDS church mission and apparently got jacked as hell and came back wanting to hit people.

Kruger said earlier this week that he was looking forward to the task of trying to get pressure on Brohm to help slow down the Louisville passing game.

"We get to see what we have," he said. "We've been practicing hard and I feel like we're prepared. We have to get good pressure on him and make sure he is feeling us every time he gets the ball."

Senior left end Martail Burnett is likely one of the most athletic players Breno Giacomini will be forced to tangle with this season. He began his Utah career as a safety, but has added 50 pounds in four years to become an all-conference candidate. The most fearsome pass rusher on the team, Burnett is tied for the conference lead in sacks with three, and possesses the same kind of speed as Syracuse's Jameel McClain, who gave the Cards fits two weeks ago.


Mini-McClain

Senior nose tackle Gabe Long returned to the starting lineup last weekend after missing two games because of a knee injury. Much like Earl Heyman, he's best suited to play tackle because of his size (6-3, 295), but has enough speed to be effective at end as well. Defensive coordinator Gary Andersen hopes that Long's return will lead to improvement against the run, but Long knows that he also has to help put pressure on Brohm for the defense to remain successful against the pass.

"If you keep him in the pocket, he'll pick you apart," Long said. "If we get him out of the pocket, we can play with them. That's my job -- to get the quarterback to scramble."

The fourth starter on the line is sophomore Junior College transfer Koa Misi, who earned the starting tackle job before the UCLA upset, and has responded with 21 tackles in his last three games. He dislocated a finger two weeks ago, but should be fine for tonight's game.

Kenape Eliapo and Greg Newman should also see significant time on the line.

STATS

Rushing Defense: 198 ypg (96)
Passing Defense: 151.6 ypg (9)
Pass Efficiency Defense: 95.2 (11)
Total Defense: 349.6 ypg (49)
Scoring Defense: 19 ppg (T-29)