Defensive line will be key to Utes’ success against Wolverines

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After a refreshing bye week, the Utes will prepare to travel to Ann Arbor, Mich. to take on the Michigan Wolverines in Michigan Stadium, more famously known as the “Big House.”
After being throttled by their longtime Midwestern rival at Notre Dame, Michigan returned home to take on a lesser threat in Miami (Ohio). The Wolverines beat the Redhawks 34-10 in front of their home crowd, thanks to a solid running game led by Derrick Green, who rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries.
Overall, the Wolverines were able to tally 276 yards on the ground, and their 184 yards through the air put their offensive total at 460 yards on the day. While 460 yards and 34 points usually point to a solid performance, the Wolverines struggled to shoo away the Redhawks until the second half and their offense was plagued by three early turnovers.
After a performance like that, the Utah defense is surely licking their lips in anticipation to show what they can do against the Michigan offense, but Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is still wary of the Wolverines and won’t get his team too riled up for the showdown on Saturday.
“They’re Michigan. That really says it all,” Whittingham said. “They’re traditionally very good on the offensive line … they have very good defensive linemen … they are a talented team, and we’ve got to be ready to play our A-game without a doubt.”
After opening the season with a porous effort against the run versus Idaho State, the Utes rebounded and played solid run defense against Fresno State. Whittingham knows they are about to face a very good rushing attack in Michigan, and the key on defense will be limiting that forceful ground game.
“To play good defense you’ve got to be tough against the run,” he said. “There wasn’t a big departure from last week, but there was a little bit more power run game on Saturday than had occurred in their first two games. I attribute some of that to not having their premier receiver on the field, but you better be able to stop the run. If you can’t stop the run, every game is going to be hard.”
For the Utes, the key in slowing down the Michigan rush will be in the defensive line. So far this season the Utes are leading the country in tackles for loss, meaning the defensive line is doing a very good job of getting in the backfield or preventing the opposing offensive line from getting the necessary push to block the linebackers in the second level of the defense. Whittingham knew the defense’s strength would lie in the defensive line and that they would be ranked highly in those categories, as they seem to be almost every year.
“It speaks to the activeness and the athletic nature of our defensive front,” Whittingham said. “We have a lot of guys up there who are returning veterans for us. We play aggressive defense here, and it’s good to show up in some of those categories.”
The defensive line will also be looking to receive a big boost from junior linebacker Gionni Paul, who could be making his first career start as a Ute Saturday. Paul missed the first two games of the season with an injured foot sustained in spring ball. Whittingham said he hopes to have Paul fully healthy by Saturday and that, barring any setbacks in the week, he should be good to go.
Senior safety and defensive captain Brian Blechen spoke highly of Paul’s skills on the field and said he should aid the defense immensely.
“He’s a natural out there,” Blechen said. “He’s a great athlete, he’s tough, he’s got good instincts to get in the right spots. He just flies around, and having him in this game will really help us.”
Even with Paul in the defensive midfield, Blechen and the rest of the defense know they will be in for a far bigger challenge than what they have faced so far this season. It’s still unclear whether Michigan’s leading receiver in Devin Funchess will play Saturday after sitting out the game against Miami of Ohio, but Blechen is preparing for every scenario.
“You can’t go in there and expect to just key in on one guy, even with Funchess gone. That enables us to do a lot more but we have to play sound defense and be ready for the running attack,” Blechen said.
The Utes will travel to Ann Arbor, Michigan on Thursday in preparation for the game on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. MT and will be nationally broadcast on ABC or ESPN2.
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