Utah's front seven ready for Colorado's power-running game

Ryan Kostecka

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/GAME BREAKDOWN

Scouting the rush defense: What makes Utah’s defense one of, if not, the best in the country? While there are a multitude of reasons of what makes the Utes so dangerous, it all starts with their run defense.

“We are just going to take care of ourselves as we continue to do our job winning games and dominating,” linebacker Francis Bernard said. “We’ll just leave it at that. … Because we can’t do anything but continue to do our thing and win.”

Possessing the country’s top rush defense by surrendering just 55.91 yards per game and 2.29 yards per carry, Utah has the ability to make teams one dimensional, which plays into the hands of its talented secondary.

But what truly sets the Utes apart is their ability to contain the run without having to load the box or bring extra pressure.

The defensive line is aided by two future NFL stars in Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae.

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Nov 24, 2018; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Utes defensive tackle Leki Fotu (99) celebrates after a fourth quarter sack against Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (11) at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Fotu is a space-eater inside, checking in at 6-foot-5 and weighing 335 pounds. He has the ability to just devour single blocks, as he’s often light enough on is feet with great technique to go around offensive linemen. Or if need be, he just powers through them and overwhelms opposing quarterbacks and running backs, often blowing up the play before it begins.

But because of Fotu’s strengths, he’s often double-teamed, freeing up one-on-one blocking for Anae. He leads the Utes in tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (11), while having been named Pac-12 defensive lineman twice this season, including last week. Also receiving that honor this season with Anae is Fotu, John Pensini and Mike Tafua.

Linebackers Bernard and Devin Lloyd anchor the middle of the defense, showcasing surprising blends of speed, athleticism and strength. Combined they have amassed 136 tackles on the season, and when seeing run, plays downhill and physical, often flying free to the ball because of the occupation of space Fotu and crew eat up.

But, this week they’ll be facing something they haven’t seen in a while: a power running game with a quarterback and running back who do just enough to keep drives alive.

"That's where it all starts for us on defense is taking away the run. ... We have a team that does a pretty good job of running the ball this week, they run for over 150 yards a game," said Kyle Whittingham, Utah head coach. "Their tailback has been pretty productive. ... He is fourth or fifth in the league in rushing. So rush defense has to be our M.O. That doesn't change week-to-week."

Buffaloes running back Alex Fontenot leads the team with 825 yards and five scores on the season, averaging just 4.8 yards per rush. A bruising running back at 6-foot, 195 pounds, Fontenot has no problem lowering his shoulder and just getting small chunks.

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Nov 23, 2019; Boulder, CO, USA; Colorado Buffaloes running back Alex Fontenot (8) dives for a touchdown against Washington Huskies defensive back Myles Bryant (5) in the third quarter at Folsom Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Backing up Fontenot is Jaren Mangham, who’s two inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Fontenot. Mangham has rushed for 441 yards and three scores. Montex is a threat running the ball as well, totaling 174 yards and three scores — while the wildcard of the group is Laviska Shenault Jr., the Buffaloes best offensive player who averages 7.6 yards per touch in the backfield.

This matchup clearly favors the Utes, but if Colorado can repeatedly gain 3-4 yards per carry, and do so often, it sets up the play-action pass, and that could be trouble for Utah. But still, nobody has had success this season against the Utes, and not expected that Colorado will either.

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