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Opponent Preview: Washington’s Defense

NCAA Football: North Dakota at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Utah’s struggling offense will be tested once again when the Washington Huskies enter Rice-Eccles Stadium this Saturday in a match-up between two highly touted PAC-12 defenses. A high scoring affair seems unlikely as both defenses have been bright spots in a slow start offensively for the Utes and Huskies.

Picking up where he left off last season, senior Ben Burr-Kirven is again leading the Huskies in total tackles, compiling 22 through the first two games on the season. The 2017 second-team All-PAC-12 linebacker has a knack for following the ball and is a fantastic run defender. Utah’s offensive line has faced problems early on, and with someone as dynamic as Burr-Kirven on the other side, it seems unlikely those issues will be remedied in week three.

Downfield the biggest threat to Utah’s success is sophomore corner Byron Murphy. In just six games last season the rising star managed two interceptions, one forced fumble, three tackles for loss and a sack. Though he has yet to force his first turnover in 2018, his pass defense has been one of the strongest points for the Huskies thus far, and considering Utah’s early tendency to turn the ball over Murphy could be in for a breakout performance.

In all, the Husky defense has been strong, but far from perfect through their first two games. Entering week three, Washington’s defense has allowed 682 total yards on 147 plays for an average of 4.639 yards per play. In last week’s matchup against FCS foe, North Dakota, the Huskies allowed an average 4.9 yards per rush, a good sign for a Utah squad that typically relies heavily on the run game and has a stable of effective running backs. On that same note, however, the defense has made critical stops allowing opponents to convert only 33.33% of third downs, and 50% of fourth down conversions (on two attempts), which is a big reason the Huskies have only allowed two opponent touchdowns on the season, both coming against Auburn in week one.

Nationally, Washington ranks 54th in total defense, just ahead of Northern Illinois (58th) who was able to keep Utah’s offense mostly contained last week. The last three matchups between Utah and Washington have been decided by an average of 8 points and considering how both teams are performing at this juncture, it’s safe to expect the trend of close games to continue this season.