Football: Opportunistic defense shines one last time for Utah

MK2_7823 Emily Juchau

In a season where Utah’s defense continually carried the team, that side of the ball was once again the reason for the team’s success in Utah’s 35-28 bowl victory over BYU on Saturday.

All season, Utah’s opportunistic defense has carried the team to wins. One of the biggest plays to start off the season was a pick-six by Justin Thomas in the fourth quarter of the game against Michigan. These are the kinds of plays that have made Utah great. The defense has made key stops and important turnovers all season long, and the pattern continued against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl, at least in the first quarter.

Uth utes running back Joe Williams (28) gets taken down during the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl against the Brigham Young Cougars at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015 . Mike Sheehan, Daily Utah Chronicle.

Uth utes running back Joe Williams (28) gets taken down during the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl against the Brigham Young Cougars at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015
. Mike Sheehan, Daily Utah Chronicle.

Because of their opportunistic defense, Utah pulled ahead enough in the first quarter to escape with the win.

On the third play of the game, Kylie Fitts forced a fumble by BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum. The Utes were able to drive the remaining 25 yards and punch the ball in for the quick score. On the very next play for BYU, Mangum threw an interception to Tevin Carter, who returned the ball 28 yards for another Utah touchdown.

Six plays later Carter intercepted Mangum, again. After a quick touchdown by Joe Williams, Mangum came back on the field and wound up throwing another pick-six to Dominique Hatfield. The next time BYU took the field, the Cougars fumbled the ball. Utah scored again and went up 35-0.

This was only the first quarter, but for Utah that might have been the entire game.

“Is this actually happening?” head coach Kyle Whittingham said about his thoughts during the first quarter. “It was a lot like the Oregon game, except intensified. It was like the Oregon game on steroids. It was even more dominating during those first 15 minutes.”

Utah Utes quarterback Travis Wilson (7) Celebrates a touchdown run during the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl against the Brigham Young Cougars at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015. Dane Goodwin, Daily Utah Chronicle.

Utah Utes quarterback Travis Wilson (7) Celebrates a touchdown run during the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl against the Brigham Young Cougars at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015. Dane Goodwin, Daily Utah Chronicle.

Utah did not score again after the first quarter, and all of its 35 points came off of turnovers. The offense only managed a total of 198 yards in the game and couldn’t move the ball effectively at all after the first quarter. Travis Wilson only completed nine passes for 71 yards and wasn’t able to get the Utes’ offense anywhere.

But the defense in the first quarter more than made up for the lack of offensive production in the rest of the game. They didn’t just stop the Cougars — they took the ball away and gave Utah easy chances to score. When your team can’t move the ball on offense, having such an opportunistic defense can give a team the win it needs.

“We made those plays,” Whittingham said. “Those plays weren’t gift-wrapped. We forced those takeaways and those turnovers. That’s just our defense flying around. We had great pressure on the quarterback.”

Defensive leader Carter had those two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, and gave Utah’s defense a boost with his playmaking. He was honored as MVP of the game, and it was well-deserved, as he was responsible for 14 of Utah’s 35 points.

“All the credit goes to my teammates,” Carter said after the game.

Even though it started hot, the defense itself didn’t play spectacular in the last three quarters of the game. It let BYU come to within one touchdown of Utah in the final four minutes, but the lead the Utes built in the first quarter was just enough to keep BYU from tying the game up.

“I think we’re the best defense in the Pac-12 this year,” Whittingham said. “There were a couple teams up there with us, but we felt like we were the best in the conference. It was great to see those guys really shine today.”

It’s not the best of gameplans, but Utah played such a great first quarter that it didn’t need to continue to play well. The Utes faltered from the start of the second quarter but had given themselves the cushion necessary to win — all thanks to the opportunities created by their defense.

g.hanson@dailyutahchronicle.com

@Twelvegage96