Defending the Defense

Three weeks ago, Carl and I joined Dog and Deuce for their annual State of Utah Football Preview. On the show we discussed how good the Utes defense would be this year and we came to a unanimous consensus that it would in fact be dominant. I don’t recall any dissention. Regardless, after I left a thought came to me that caused me a moment’s pause and I dwelt on it for about two weeks. I finally came to the conclusion, the morning of the Utah at Utah State game, that I needed to ask this question out loud as I had struggled to find a resolution. Here is the question I posed to many Ute fans:

A lot of people expect the Utes to finish no worse than 2nd in the South and 4th in the conference this season and from what I understand, it is because they expect this Utah defense to be so dominant that it will make up for the obvious shortcomings and deficiencies on offense, such as Brian Johnson’s new role or the instability of Jordan Wynn. And I agree that the defense is going to be dominant. But here is my question. This defense returned a lot of last year’s team and most of the new starters were regulars in the rotation last year, yet this defense nearly didn’t make up for the deficiencies in Pullman last year and certainly didn’t in Salt Lake against Colorado when the conference championship game was on the line. So tell me why this year should be any different? Shouldn’t we expect this defense, as dominant as it certainly will be, to not be able to make up for offensive and special teams issues at some point this season?

I got a lot of responses, but most seemed to resonate with what I had been feeling; that if the offense didn’t offer any support, the defense wouldn’t be able to maintain the team as hoped. Here are some of the responses:

From Allen (aka “Dog” from the Dog and Deuce Show)

“I think far too many people are giving the offense a pass because they think the defense will be so dominant.”

“I don’t think the advantage that John White (IV) brings can be overstated. If Brian Johnson has half a brain, he will lean of him and Kelvin York heavily.”

“I don’t know if the defense can make up for the offensive and special teams issues. Even though the defense will be even better than last year’s, that’s a lot to put on their backs.”

From Chris (aka @fuegote on Twitter and purveyor of The BYUofU Show as well as The RSL Show)

“I think what happened with last year’s defense is you just saw a team that was on the field a lot near the end of the season.”

“If the offense sputters or struggled this year, the defense won’t look as good.”

This response came after the Utah State game was played:

From Ian

“After the recent events that happened this past Saturday it seems the question has already been answered. Defense cannot win 9 games for the Utes.”

There are more comments, but I think this is enough. It helped me to come to understand what I was thinking about this team; it can’t win on defense alone.

I did have a few more responses that I’d like to share though. One I called the UNLV Loss Theory from Steve (and serious cause for hope for Ute fans):

First, his timeline:

2007 – UNLV crushes the Utes in Vegas

2007 – After the UNLV game, Utes win 8 of 9 the rest of the way

2008 – Utes go on to 13-0

21-1 after the UNLV loss.

Colorado loss (2011) = UNLV loss

And now his point:

“History does not dictate the future but Coach Whit is one of my favorite reasons to be a Ute Fan and it seems that after an embarrassment he makes his teams respond. This group needed its “UNLV loss” and now it has it.

I want to add my thoughts to this. First, I think this is a very valid and well-laid out point. I’ve not seen many coaches like Whit who can get his team to respond after a loss, especially an inexplicable one. Second, I don’t think Colorado can be considered a “UNLV loss.” Here’s why. After the Utah State loss, John White IV said,

“It’s devastating, because we lost to a team that’s not even in the Pac-12. To lose to Utah State is horrible.”

The Utes have this PAC 12 mentality that they can’t lose to inferior teams if they just show up. Losing to Colorado, while inferior, is still a PAC 12 team. They can’t be UNLV. But Utah State can be. I believe Steve is right in that they have their “UNLV loss”; it just came in the form of the Aggies last week.

And in his weekly post on here, Chris made the same conclusion.

“Whittingham after a loss is usually money.”

And that scares the heck out of me as a BYU fan. To be in the crosshairs of a wounded team coached by Kyle Whittingham makes me nervous.

And I’m going to flip this on BYU and use some of these same arguments, much like Rob began to in his response to me.

  • “BYU’s defense is expected to win some games for them this season.” I believe this, but after these discussions, the same rules apply. BYU’s offense may be a bit more intact than Utah’s but if they can’t run effectively, sustain drives, and finish them in the endzone when playing from the Blue Zone, then the same things can be expected to befall BYU.
  • “BYU’s offense is better than Utah’s offense.” You still can’t compare the two. Much like you can’t honestly compare the defenses. And it goes back to the point of contact – the offensive line. BYU has failed for two weeks to get a substantial and consistent push off the line of scrimmage. Over and over pressure up the middle and from the edge is breaking through, often in four or even three man rushes. This will keep BYU from not only running effectively, but will cause Riley Nelson to feel pressure to make plays. And we only need to look back at TCU in 2011 to see what happens when he gets in that mode.
  • “Utah lost to Utah State. We’re looking for revenge for 2011. We got this in the bag.” Not so fast Cougar fans. If ever there was a team that could fall on its face after reaching levels of pride it was that Cougars. Just look at 2009 and Florida State and later TCU. I subscribe that Utah got full of themselves last week and didn’t exactly prepare for what hit them in the first half and they paid for it. If BYU can’t get it together, Utah will let them have it.
  • “Its just another game.” I’m sorry, I’m going to stand on my soap box just a little longer. Does this phrase bug anyone else? I understand not wanting to give Utah and “bulletin board material” but trying to make anyone believe this is just another game is an exercise in futility. And unfortunately, I think a lot of the players end up believing it to such an extent they lose all the emotion that comes with this game. Max Hall said some stupid things after 2009, but at least he understood, this isn’t just another game. I think the emotion that leads up to this game carries over onto the field and pretending it doesn’t exist just under-prepares one side for a major element of this game. I know this really has nothing to do with the argument of actual play on the field, but it really bugs me.

Bottom line, I think a consensus (for both teams) is that the defense for each team is going to be outstanding. They will be great in their own rights. The question is, how great? That will remain to be seen when we see what the offense does to protect the ball and score and the special teams keeps starting field position in favor of their own team.

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