Utah's Defense Turning Attention To What Could Be A Bright 2021 Season

After ending the year with three consecutive wins — a first since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 — Utah is now turning its focus and attention to what could be a very special 2021 season
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It probably took less than an hour after Utah's 45-28 come-from-behind victory over Washington State in the season finale before head coach Kyle Whittingham turned his attention to the future.

Once the celebration ended and senior quarterback Drew Lisk was given the game ball for his performance in the clutch, it's best assumed that Whittingham immediately began looking too and planning for the future. The momentum gained in coming from behind to win that game could pay dividends moving forward.

Dec 19, 2020; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Utes quarterback Drew Lisk (12) passes under pressure by Washington State Cougars defensive end Brennan Jackson (80) in the fourth quarter at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“It’s better than losing it. I don’t know how long that momentum lasts. It gives you a good feeling about the season,” he said. “It leaves a better taste in your mouth than the alternative.”

The victory also served a much larger purpose as it helped the Utes overcome their end-of-season issues. 

Ever since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes have failed to end a season with three straight wins — most notably suffering losses in the Pac-12 title and bowl games the past two seasons. But rallying from a 28-7 deficit at the half to win by 17 in the season finale is huge for a youthful team looking for any good news to build upon.

“When you look at the final three games, I’m proud of these guys getting it turned around. We had two tough games right out of the gate — the two champions, the North champ Washington and the South champ USC,” Whittingham said. “We took a step forward in each game. That will give us good momentum heading into the offseason. We’ll try to build on it. That’s the next challenge.”

Dec 12, 2020; Boulder, Colorado, USA; Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham in the first quarter against the Colorado Buffaloes at Folsom Field.

One of the biggest reasons for positivity heading into next year is the defense. 

After having to replace nine starters from the 2019 team, including six of which were drafted into the NFL, expectations weren't extremely high. But in typical Utah fashion, the Utes overcame those low expectations to thrive throughout the season.

“They needed to go through that. I’m so proud of this team, especially all the new guys on defense,” he said. “We were second in the league in defense entering this game. If you would have told me that at the end of the season we’d be No. 2 in defense, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’”

The Utes could very well be returning every starter from last season's unit that finished among the conference's best, including third in scoring defense (26.0 ppg), first in rushing defense (107.8 ypg) and second in total defense (365.0 ypg).

Dec 5, 2020; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Utes defensive end Mika Tafua (42) celebrates after sacking Oregon State Beavers quarterback Chance Nolan (10) on the final drive of the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Linebacker Devin Lloyd, a Butkus award semifinalist, was named to the all-Pac-12 first team and is seen as the best player on the defense. He, along with defensive end Mika Tafua, will each have a decision to make about returning or going to the NFL. 

If the Utes can retain both players, that would be a huge sign moving forward for the defense next season as they not provide their advanced skillset, they're the leaders of the defense.

With established stars at those two levels of the game, the Utes can then focus on the progress made by one of the youngest defensive secondaries in the nation this past season.

True freshman Clark Phillips III (the program's highest-rated recruit), Faybian Marks and Nate Ritchie all started multiple games this season, as well as sophomores JaTravis Broughton and Malone Mataele. On the two deep that featured eight players, senior Vonte Davis was the only upperclassmen.

Dec 19, 2020; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III (8) runs back an interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The secondary finished 10th in the conference in passing yards allowed, but that's an extremely misleading stat considering teams were forced to throw against after they had the conference's best rush defense.

Utah ranked second in passer rating (120.64), second in attempts per game (38.2), third in interceptions (7) and fourth in yards per attempt (6.7).

Giving the Utes a full offseason, which includes a spring, summer and fall camp, will go a long ways into improving the youngest defense in the country. 

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