Both Gary Patterson and Kyle Whittingham take pride in their defense. So is it any wonder one of the big storylines headed into the showdown between TCU and Utah on Saturday is this: Which defense is better?
Both rank in the top 10 in the country in three major statistical categories: total defense, pass defense and scoring defense. Both are strong up front. Utah has plenty of depth on the defensive line and its three starting linebackers are among the top four tacklers on the team. The Utes have 23 sacks on the season. TCU has 20.
The Horned Frogs posted back-to-back shutouts to open conference play and have allowed a total of 16 points in five conference games. They held Air Force to a season-low in rushing yards, and lead the nation in total defense once again. That should not come as too much of a shock. It’s a spot they held in 2008 and 2009, too.
They are going to be without starting nose tackle Kelly Griffin, who is out indefinitely with a broken ankle. D.J. Yendrey made his first career start last week against UNLV. Here is a closer look at both units:
Experience: Utah has less experience, having lost seven starters from last season. But because Whittingham has emphasized defensive improvement, this unit has gotten better in a hurry. There is no greater example of that than looking at the trio of Matt Martinez, Chaz Walker and Chad Manis. They had combined for zero starts before this season. Walker and Martinez are former walk-ons; Manis is a former quarterback. TCU returned six starters, though cornerbacks Jason Teague and Greg McCoy saw plenty of action last season. Still, there is youth that has grown up -- most notably linebacker Tanner Brock and defensive end Stansly Maponga.
Breakout player: Utah safety Brian Blechen has been a most pleasant surprise. The true freshman switched from quarterback in fall camp and the move has been a good one. His interception in overtime against Pittsburgh helped the Utes win, and he shares the team lead with two interceptions on the year. For TCU, it would have to be Maponga, filling in for the departed Jerry Hughes. Patterson has spoken highly of the job Maponga has done. He leads all TCU defensive linemen with 27 tackles and has three tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. His play has helped open things up for Daniels, who leads the team with 5.5 sacks.
Areas of improvement: Whittingham has spoken all season about trying to create more turnovers on defense. Utah only has taken the ball away 12 times in seven games. Seven of those have come in the past two games, including five last week against Air Force. Patterson has talked about wanting his team to hunt together, to play effectively as a unit, and that has showed in league play. But this is going to be the most significant test to the secondary, perhaps all season, making this a unit to watch.