Under Scalley, Young Utes Defense Remains Dominant
Ask every coach, player and pundit around the country about the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Utah football and near unanimously the first thing they say is defense. They might use words to describe the team like tough, physical, fast, suffocating, dominant, machines or more. However, those words, regardless of how good the offense is at the time, always center around the defense.
Why? Because defense is Utah football. It has been its calling card since head coach Kyle Whittingham stepped on campus as the Utah defensive line coach.
In 2019, led by Broyles Award finalist, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley the Utes had arguably their most dominant defense ever, with nine starters going to the NFL. So when the 2020 season finally got underway, there was going to be a sizable drop off, right? Wrong.
By game one, the Utes trotted out a secondary that deployed three true freshmen, one sophomore and a senior as starters. The defensive line’s lone returning starter was All-Pac-12 selection Mika Tafua and occasional starter Maxs Tupai. Everyone else was largely seeing their first significant amount of playing time. At linebacker was the other returning starter, Devin Lloyd, but he lined up alongside converted safety, Nephi Sewell.
For most teams, that’s horrifying. For the Utes in 2020, they do what they simply always seem to do, especially since joining the Pac-12: reload.
With Scalley calling the shots and making adjustments—like occasional zone coverage for a team that historically relies on man-to-man—the young Utes quickly became a force. It was supposed to be the offense that carried Utah in 2020, but after an early injury in the first game to starting quarterback Cam Rising, it immediately fell on the defense’s shoulder. Scalley and his guys answered the call with once again one of the top defenses in the Pac-12.
Here’s how Utah ranked in the final Pac-12 defensive statistics:
Total Defense: 2nd
Scoring Defense: 3rd
Rushing Defense: 1st
Pass Def Efficiency: 1st
3rd Down Defense: 2nd
4th Down Defense: 2nd
First Downs Allowed: 1st
Red Zone Defense (TDs allowed): 2nd
If that wasn’t impressive enough, this trend listed below is even more impressive under Scalley. It’s even more eye-popping with the context added that 16 defenders over the previous two years before this season either had opportunities in the NFL or are already starters and key contributors. That’s how young and green this 2020 group was.
3rd Down Defense over the last 3 years:
2018: 1st in the Pac-12, 17th nationally
2019: 1st in the Pac-12, 9th nationally
2020: 2nd in the Pac-12, 20th nationally
Scalley deserves a massive amount of credit for putting his guys in position to succeed, but he’ll be the first to deflect the credit and praise his staff, including Sharrieff Shah, Lewis Powell, Sione Pouha, and Colton Swan. Ten years from now, everyone might be looking at that list and saying these were their humble beginnings. As for Scalley though, he’s been there, done that, and the Pac-12 isn’t looking forward to him continually calling the shots.
Defense is Utah football and a rebuild to many, is only a reload for the Utes. The Pac-12 can look forward to continuously being tormented by Scalley and crew. After the last few years, it is what it is, their opponents just expect it.