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Opponent Preview: Stanford Defense

Stanford v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The 2021 Stanford Cardinal are bad. Not quite Arizona or Colorado bad (they do have wins over USC and somehow Oregon, after all), but bad nonetheless. As a unit, the defense is giving up an average of 27 points and 401.6 yards per game, which isn’t exactly terrible...in fact, for the most part, the Cardinal defense is good enough to get by as long as their offense is capable of stringing together an effective drive long enough to give the defense some rest. With that said, Utah’s offense is firing on all cylinders as of late and should be more than capable of finding ways to score.

A glaring weak spot for Stanford lies in their rush defense, which ranks dead last in the PAC-12 and 120th nationally. Of the 401.6 yards per game they give up, 206 yards are surrendered on the ground, while 17 of the 27 touchdowns allowed this season have been rushing attempts. This should be music to the ears of Ute fans who witnessed Tavion Thomas run laps against UCLA last week en route to a career night where sophomore phenom gained 160 yards with a whopping four touchdowns. Beyond that, their pass rush is ho-hum tallying just 13 sacks on the season, a low mark bested only by Colorado’s eight. What keeps this defense alive is a deceptively solid secondary.

Led by senior safety Kendall Williamson (6’1”, 202 lbs) and junior cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly (6’1”, 186 lbs), this secondary isn’t exactly the ball-hawking unit that warrants much trepidation, especially with a QB as capable as Cam Rising at the helm, but they are fantastic when it comes to breaking up on-target passes, raking up 28 pass deflections this season, with Blu Kelly and Williamson combining for 50% of those break-ups. Blu Kelly also has two of Stanford’s four interceptions on the season, including a pick-six, and one forced fumble, though as Stanford’s defense has forced a total of four fumbles in 2021, only one has been recovered for a takeaway.

As the fifth-ranked defender in the PAC-12, junior linebacker and Utah native Levani Damuni (6’2”, 247 lbs) is having himself a breakout season, tallying a team-leading 62 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two sacks. Damuni’s speed and explosiveness make him the best weapon to stop Utah’s vicious rush attack, but keeping Utah’s stable of backs totally contained is easier said than done.

Only an inept Washington offense has scored fewer than three touchdowns against the Cardinal this season, and since inserting Rising in as starting QB, the Utes have scored an average of 35.8 points per game, finding their way to the end zone 12 times through the air and 18 times on the ground. Against a defense this porous, Utah has a chance to not just win, but pile on some style points in their quest for the program’s first Rose Bowl berth.