D-stroying the competition

The legend of Eric Weddle continues.The Ute senior’s performance Saturday evening against San Diego State-three interceptions and three total touchdowns in a 38-7 victory-not only solidified his standing as the MWC’s preeminent defensive player, but epitomized the direction of the 2006 Utes thus far.While the offense works out the kinks, the defense is setting the tone. None of the Utes’ performances during their current three-game winning streak has been perfect, but the defense, the unit that has surrendered just 14 total points in that span, sure is making it look easy.Ute defenders are helping out on the scoreboard in more ways than one, scoring four touchdowns of their own over the last two weeks.That’s a switch from the Utes’ first two games, in which they managed just one takeaway, compared with three turnovers. That was an area Kyle Whittingham and defensive coordinator Gary Anderson emphasized after those first two contests, and the Utes have responded in major fashion. The Ute defense has picked up 11 takeaways over the last two games alone-and it’s no coincidence that the team has outscored its foes 86-7 in that stretch.”A lot of people are trying to challenge us through the air since UCLA, and we really buckled down and got five picks (Saturday),” Weddle said after Saturday’s win. “That’s probably the most I’ve ever been a part of. It really just shows the character of this team, the way we battled back.”Every unit has stepped up since the U’s much-ballyhooed season-opening performance against UCLA. In addition to the forced turnovers, the Utes have brought down opposing quarterbacks 10 times in three games and have stifled opposing runners, who are averaging just 3.0 yards per carry.”A couple of those picks were because of the D-line,” Weddle said after his three-interception performance, “so you’ve got to give those guys credit.”The defense, overshadowed by the high-powered offense for the last few seasons, has taken it upon itself to take command over the last few weeks, particularly on Saturday at Qualcomm Stadium-the first game of conference play-and on the road, no less.”We had to come out and make a statement. Especially coming out here on the road, it’s a big win,” free safety Steve Tate said. “We don’t want to look too much into (our recent performance), but obviously defensively, the less points you give up, the more games you’re going to win, and that’s our goal.”Of course, the defensive production begins and ends with No. 32, as the U coaching staff can attest. Over the last two years in particular, Whittingham and Co. have found numerous creative ways to use Weddle, putting him all over the field and trying to maximize his effectiveness. Whether that means he plays cornerback, safety, quarterback, running back, holder or punt returner, the Utes always benefit. “He’s such a dynamic player. His abilities are so rare,” Whittingham said. “If he was a running back, I guarantee he’d rush for 1,200-1,400 yards. Guaranteed. If he was a receiver, he’d catch 70 balls. That’s how gifted he is. We want to take advantage of that, utilize it, and at the same time we don’t want to wear him out.”The maligned Ute secondary may have come into its own Saturday against the Aztecs. Not only did Eric Shyne continue to show rapid improvement after his game one struggles (snagging his second interception of the season in the process), but Tate and Casey Evans continued their strong play at safety. Not to mention the quietly strong play of corner Brice McCain, whose effectiveness has been overlooked because teams haven’t thrown his way all that much.”Our guys do a great job studying film, Eric Weddle in particular. I’ve never been around a football player who prepares the way he does for a football game, just hours and hours of film study,” Whittingham said. “He could tell you more about the opponent’s offense than they can tell about themselves.”With a typically potent Boise State team getting ready to invade Rice-Eccles Stadium this weekend, the current trends will need to stick. The Utes may need all the takeaways they can get.

Lennie Mahler

Eric Weddle runs his third interception of the night in for a touchdown during Saturday’s game at SDSU. Weddle was named Defensive Player of the Week.