Utes' secondary in for interesting battle against Colorado's pass-catchers

Ryan Kostecka

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/GAME BREAKDOWN

Scouting the pass defense: This is expected to be the best matchup of the game, with Utah’s Jaylon Johnson looking to shadow Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. all game long. This battle will feature two of the Pac-12’s best at their respective positions, and will go a long way into deciding the outcome of the game.

On the season, Shenault has 52 catches for 721 yards and four scores, an average of 13.9 yards per catch. He's also added 136 rushing yards on 18 carries and two scores. He's battled injuries for most of the season, but last year is where he made his mark when he caught 86 passes for 1,011 yards and five scores.

“Once he catches the ball, he’s explosive,” Johnson said of Shenault. “He can turn short plays into long plays, just being able to stretch the plays and just being a dynamic playmaker.”

Likewise, Johnson is Utah’s leader in the secondary, and one of the best on-ball defensive backs the Utes have had in a decade. Gifted with size (6-foot) and strength (195-lbs), Johnson has made tremendous strides this season despite being named to the all-Pac-12 first-team last season.

His pass skills are excellent, as evidenced by his two interceptions and nine passes defended — the reason his stats aren’t better is because opposing quarterbacks have rarely thrown his way this season.

“At this point, it is just my job at this point to go out and shut whoever their best guy is down,” Johnson said. “It’s nothing new for this week, just go out there and whoever they put me on, I plan to lock up.”

But what happens outside of the Johnson-Shenault battle?

Besides USC, who the Utes lost too early in the season, Colorado has the next batch of receivers that are dangerous and cause problems.

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Oct 5, 2019; Boulder, CO, USA; Colorado Buffaloes wide receiver Tony Brown (18) runs after a reception against the Arizona Wildcats in the first quarter at Folsom Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows about Shenault but Tony Brown (6-foot-1, 195 lbs) has been as equally as impressive this season, leading the team in catches (55) and touchdowns (5) with 698 yards. Also in the mix is K.D. Nixon (5-foot-8, 185 lbs), a shifty and elusive presence who has amassed 34 catches for 453 yards and three scores.

Then there’s Colorado quarterback Steven Montez Jr. a senior who’s thrown for 2,681 yards and 15 scores on the year. Montez, who’s completing 62.8-percent (238-for-379) of his passes on the season, is 417 yards away from 10,000 career yards.

So how does Utah stack up against an offense such as this? By possession the conference’s best pass defense. Seniors Julian Blackmon and Terrell Burgess make up arguably the best safety duo in the conference, if not the nation. They’ve combined for 111 tackles and nine passes defended, while Blackmon leads the team with four interceptions.

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Sep 28, 2019; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Utes defensive back Terrell Burgess (26) reacts to breaking up a play against the Washington State Cougars in the first quarter at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Apart from defending the pass, what makes the Utes special is their pass rush, as Bradlee Anae has amassed 12.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks on the year. He, along with his fellow defensive linemen, have done a tremendous job of pressuring opposing quarterbacks all season long into bad decisions, which could be likely considering Montez has thrown 10 interceptions on the season.

This will be the best matchup to watch come Saturday — so get ready because if Colorado wants to win, it’s going to have to throw the ball with success. But, the Utes will be ready for the challenge as they’ve been all season, amassing more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (10) on the year.

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