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Utah quietly creeps into top 10

Well, look who is right back in the top 10.

None other than the original BCS busters.

Utah has skyrocketed from no ranking in the preseason AP poll to No. 10 after a few short weeks, thanks in part to a team that has quickly come together. A favorable schedule has not hurt, either.

Now the Utes face perhaps their biggest challenge of the young season -- going on the road against an Iowa State team that easily dispatched Texas Tech last week.

“We’re going to be the small guys coming in trying to prove ourselves against a bigger program,” defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said in a phone interview. “We know we’re going into Big 12 country, and we need to show well.”

Utah is not going to be use the “small guys” talking point for much longer, since it is moving to the Pac-10 next season. But there is no question the Utes are trying to make a statement in their final year in the Mountain West.

Perhaps they are flying under the radar with No. 4 Boise State and No. 5 TCU ranked ahead of them. Perhaps there are those out there who are not quite taking them seriously just yet, not with wins over teams that are a combined 4-15 at this point in the season. Utah needed overtime to beat what is turning out to be a pretty average Pittsburgh team, and has beaten up on UNLV, winless New Mexico, and a San Jose State team that just lost to FCS UC-Davis.

There is no question the schedule is back-loaded, but there is something to say for the way Utah has performed despite the competition. The Utes came into the season needing to replace seven starters on defense, including all three starting linebackers. These four games have allowed them not only to build chemistry, but build depth because so many players have gotten into games.

That will only help when the schedule gets tougher. Starting Oct. 30, Utah must play at Air Force, home to TCU, at Notre Dame, at San Diego State and then closes out with arch rival BYU.

“Going into our fifth game, this is where we wanted to see our defense,” Sitake said. “They’re playing well as a unit. You don’t know a lot of the names that are brand new, but in time they become guys you are used to hearing on the field making plays.”

Indeed, this defense is ranked No. 7 in scoring defense and No. 7 in total defense. They rotate nearly a dozen players on the defensive line, making them one of the deepest units in college football. The new starting linebackers: former walk-ons on Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez, and a former quarterback in Chad Manis. They are the heart of the team because they help set the aggressive tone.

“Those guys are crazy. I try to stay out of their way,” joked cornerback Lamar Chapman, who leads the team with 3.5 sacks. “They have bleached hair, torn shirts. Those are some nasty guys.”

When asked to describe how the defense has come together so quickly, Chapman said, “The team as a whole, we’re very unified. We hang out a lot. We chill on weekends. The majority of the time, we’re all together. I was here during the ‘08 season. I feel like we’re more unified.”

Coach Kyle Whittingham has made similar comments. That 2008 team went undefeated and ended up beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

As for the mentality of the defense, Sitake has an easy explanation:

“They are trying to be tough guys, but toughness is more than being out there and pounding your chest. It’s a guy who’s going to sacrifice and do things guys aren’t willing to do. To me that’s what defines toughness, guys that are doing the little things and not getting the credit for it. The defense has done that. They’re willing to sacrifice for a win. When you have guys who do that and are not worried about their stats, then you will win a lot of games.”