No. 12 Utah's defensive line still dominant while battling injuries
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Missing multiple starters hasn’t prevented Utah’s defensive line from dominating opponents.
The No. 12 Utes relied on their trademark stifling defense to pave the way to victories over Florida and Baylor ahead of Saturday’s contest against Weber State. Through two games, Utah (2-0) leads the Pac-12 in opponent third-down conversion percentage (16.7%) and is third in first downs defense (27).
It’s a major reason why the Utes have allowed only two touchdowns in two games.
“We just want to choke teams out,” defensive end Jonah Elliss said. “If we can keep teams under 20 points, it gives our offense such strong possibilities. If we do our job on defense, it allows our offense to flow so much better.”
Utah’s defensive front has remained stout even while Connor O’Toole, Simote Pepa, and Junior Tafuna missed games while rehabbing injuries. Tafuna returned to action against Baylor. O’Toole is expected to make his season debut within the next two weeks.
Other defensive linemen have stepped up in their absence. Elliss tallied two sacks against Florida and leads the defensive line with seven tackles through two games. Logan Fano, a true freshman, had one against the Gators.
“The depth here is insane to see,” defensive tackle Keanu Tanuvasa said. “I think, across the board, we just match each other up and we’re able to bring certain things to the table that we didn’t have in past years.”
Tough defense should benefit the Utes against a formidable FCS team. Weber State (2-0) has reached the FCS playoffs six times in seven years. But the Wildcats are also 0-6 against Utah all-time. The Utes haven’t lost to a Big Sky Conference team, or an FCS opponent, since 1993.
Cam Rising’s status remains day to day. Rising has been cleared for full participation in practices but is a game-time decision against Weber State. If he isn’t given the green light on Saturday, Nate Johnson will get his first career start at quarterback.
Johnson led Utah on consecutive fourth quarter touchdown drives to help the Utes beat Baylor 20-13 in week two. He finished with 82 yards on 6-of-7 passing while also running for 32 yards and a touchdown.
Johnson has electrified Utah’s offense with his speed and elusiveness as a runner in special Wildcat packages. His passing skills are still raw, but Utes coach Kyle Whittingham likes the strides from the redshirt freshman in that area.
“He’s still a work-in-progress in that regard, and there will still be some growing pains in that regard,” Whittingham said. “But he has really improved by leaps and bounds over the course of the last year.”
Could Damon Bankston become Weber State’s next 1,000-yard rusher? Bankston is off to a strong start as the Wildcats’ lead back. He ranks second in the FCS with 131.5 rushing yards per game and is averaging 7.5 per carry.
Bankston tallied a season-high 144 yards on the ground in a 34-17 victory over Northern Iowa. His steady backfield production has smoothed the transition for a Weber State offense filling holes at other skill positions coming into the season.
“I think we’re feeling out offensively who we are again,” Weber State coach Mickey Mental said. “Obviously, you’ll get that with new receivers and a new quarterback, just figuring out what they do well and try to implement that into the game plan.”
Mikey Matthews has wasted no time making a name for himself on Utah’s offense. Matthews, a true freshman, is already the Utes’ leading receiver after his first two college games. He has tallied a team-high eight receptions and is second among Utah receivers with 82 yards, trailing only Money Parks. Matthews is the first freshman to lead the Utes in receptions since Jaylen Dixon in 2018.
Two Utah assistant coaches worked on the Weber State sidelines before joining the Utes. Linebackers coach Colton Swan spent 15 years as a defensive assistant for the Wildcats, where he was a former player. Running backs coach Quinton Ganther coached for seven seasons before returning to Utah, where he played running back under Whittingham.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll