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Pac-12 Championship Game Opponent Preview: Washington’s Defense

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NCAA Football: Washington at Utah Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Utah’s lone home loss of 2018 came by the way of a defensive slug fest in which Washington walked away victorious. Managing just one touchdown late in the first quarter, the Utes were forced to punt only three times, but an interception and two costly fumbles changed the narrative of a deceptively close game. Following the loss, Utah’s offensive identity was established, and the Utes went on to average 33.8 points per game going forward. Now nine games later, Utah will have a chance to test their offensive prowess against the only defense that could stop the Utes from scoring for three straight quarters.

At the heart of the Husky defense is senior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven. Leading all Huskies with 155 total tackles (78 solo and 77 assisted), two interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, Burr-Kirven has established himself as one of the most dynamic defenders in the PAC-12 and is one of the main reasons the Huskies have the 13th best overall defense in the nation. Despite his dominance, in his first match-up against the Utes, the senior linebacker managed 11 total tackles, a shade below his 12.9 per game average.

Up front senior defensive tackle Greg Gains and sophomore end Levi Onwuzurike bring an impactful pass rush, combining for six sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. Thankfully, Utah’s Jason Shelley has managed to avoid sacks since assuming the starting role, a combination of his mobility, ability to get rid of the ball when under pressure, and a healthy offensive line. Preserving that success against an intimidating defensive front will be critical if Shelley and the Utes hope to punch their ticket to the Rose Bowl.

Arguably the most dominant unit for the Huskies is their hard-hitting secondary that includes junior Taylor Rapp, who recovered two fumbles against the Utes in week three, and senior Jordan Miller, a solid corner whose best performance of the season came with a forced fumble, one interception and three tackles against Utah.

Finding a victory against an imposing Huskies defense is no easy task as Ute fans already know. But Utah’s offense lacked a sense of direction in their first meeting of 2018, a problem that has since been remedied to the tune of multiple 40+ point performances since their flatlined effort in week three. If Jason Shelley and Armand Shyne (along with a heavy dose of TJ Greene, who successfully rushed for an average of 5.6 yards per carry against BYU compared to Shyne’s 3.1) can continue their magical run, the Utes will be leaving Santa Clara smelling like roses.