There are programs known for producing elite caliber players at certain position groups. Georgia has a history of great running backs, USC consistently has stellar quarterback play, and Penn State is the original "Linebacker U." Under Kyle Whittingham, Utah's signature has always been defensive players, specifically linemen and defensive backs. This season, however, Utah's defensive front has been so productive at wreaking havoc in opposing backfield that some have dubbed the Utes' hometown "Sack Lake City"
The Utes have a history of excellence on the defensive front. From Luther Eliss in the early 90's to Paul Kruger and Star Lotulelei in recent years, it seems the Utes are always loaded on the defensive line. This year is no exception. The Utah defense, led by senior defensive end Nate Orchard, leads the nation in sacks and without a doubt the front seven is the number one worry opposing coaches have when facing the Utes.
We'll start off with the main players of the defensive line unit. Orchard, as noted, is the clear leader of the line and the best player on the entire defense. Orchard has always exhibited superior athleticism and playmaking ability since he first arrived at Utah; however, he would often disappear for stretches early in his career. He'd record a sack or force a fumble, and that would be the last you saw of him for the rest of the game. This year, his senior year, he appears to have put it all together. He has shown the ability to bring it on every down, relentlessly harassing the quarterback and taking it upon himself to be a leader for the team. Orchard's 10.5 sacks on the year are a team high and rank him second in the nation behind only Hau'oli Kikaha of Washington. Orchard averages nearly 2 sacks a game just by himself. Another stat that is telling, is Orchard ranks third in the nation in tackles for a loss with 13. This means Orchard is in the backfield more than almost any player in the nation, constantly putting pressure on the opposing quarterback, taking running backs down behind the line of scrimmage, or blowing up screens.
At the other end position it doesn't get much easier for the opposition. Hunter Dimick, only a sophomore, is second on the team in sacks with 5.5. Dimick has shown he has a motor and makes up for whatever athleticism he lacks by brute strength and effort.
Jared Norris, the junior linebacker, also likes to get in on the party with four sacks of his own on the year.
The defensive line produces the most pressure on the quarterback producing 74% of the sacks with 24.5. The linebackers get a smaller portion of the sacks with 7, and defensive backs only have 1.5 sacks on the year. This coincides with the style of defense the Utes play, keeping the corners in man coverage and relying on the defensive line to provide pressure, with an occasional linebacker blitz.
Through six games the team has combined for a total 33 sacks, meaning the team is averaging a staggering 5.5 sacks per game. The next closest team nationally to matching those numbers is Virginia Tech at four sacks per game. That's 18.3% fewer sacks per game. A pretty significant drop off from number one to number two.
So how have the sack totals factored into the games already played so far this season? Here's a table showing this year's opponents, the Utes sack total for the game and the final score.
|Idaho State||4.0||W 56-14|
|Fresno State||7.0||W 59-27|
|At Michigan||4.0||W 26-10|
|Washington State||3.0||L 27-28|
|At UCLA||10.0||W 30-28|
|At Oregon State||5.0||W 29-23|
The most glaring stat is the game with the lowest sack total also happens to be the Utes' lone loss on the year. Interestingly enough, the Utes' most surprising win of the year against UCLA, was the team's highest sack total. Is this coincidence? I think not.
Clearly getting pressure on the opposing quarterback can cause all kinds of problems for the other team. Not only is the quarterback getting less time to find open receivers, it wears down the psyche of the quarterback knowing he could be hit at any moment. It was clear UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley had lost confidence in his O-Line during the UCLA game when he was sacked on three consecutive plays, the last sack concluding with Hundley just giving up, standing at the goal line hunched over waiting for two Utes to sack him for a safety... ahem excuse me, at the one yard line.
Against USC this weekend the Utes defense will face off against a Trojan offensive line that has struggled at times this year allowing 16 total sacks. Half of those have come in their two losses this season. In their loss to Boston College they gave up five sacks while against Arizona State, the Trojan O-Line allowed three sacks. The Trojans' Cody Kessler is a pure pocket passer and needs a clean pocket to be effective. It's no surprise that the Trojans' two losses came in games where the quarterback was pressured heavily by the opposing teams defensive line.
The Utah defense have been road warriors this year, tallying 19 sacks on the road as opposed to 14 at home. Nate Orchard has been especially quiet at home recording only 2.5 sacks, both coming in the opener against FCS opponent Idaho State. Orchard will need to crank it up at home this week if the Utes want to knock off the Trojans. If USC is forced to focus on Orchard, gaps will open up for the likes of Dimick, Norris and company to wreak havoc in the Trojan backfield.
This Saturday at 8 p.m. MT, Utah hosts the Trojans of USC in the rowdy confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium. If the Utes want to come out of that game with a victory, they'll have to warmly welcome Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler to Sack Lake City.