Kyle Whittingham isn’t sure when a Utah fan coined the moniker, but the Utes' coach knows it was born in either 2013 or 2014. His team combined for 94 sacks those two seasons, including an FBS-best 55 in 2013.
Suddenly, “Sack Lake City” began appearing in and around Salt Lake City -- on signs in the stands, at tailgates, even as a Twitter hashtag -- as a clever homage to the Utes' pass-rushing rampages.
“It’s become a trademark for us,” Whittingham said, chuckling. "Anything we can use to gain an edge in recruiting, we’ll take.”
It has been no laughing matter for opposing quarterbacks. Utah has 171 sacks during the past four seasons, tops among Pac-12 teams and second most in the FBS behind only Clemson (177). But the Tigers have played four more games, so the Utes lead the country with 3.4 sacks per game over that span.
Utah’s assault on opposing quarterbacks has meshed well with the raucous environment of Rice-Eccles Stadium, arguably the best home-field advantage in the Pac-12.
“It’s just pure energy, 50,000 screaming their brains out before the snap, and then it gets even louder when we get to the quarterback,” defensive lineman Hunter Dimick said. “This is what we’ve become known for.”
The Utes have become enamored with the snowball sack effect that often takes hold when their success wounds an offensive line, and the crowd rattles it even more. Whittingham says the process "perpetuates itself," as noise helps to create mayhem behind the line of scrimmage, which creates more noise.
“I can’t even count how many sacks we’ve gotten because the offensive line has gotten a late jump on the snap,” Dimick said. “They can’t hear, so the success is contagious.”
But Utah has also taken the show on the road to quieter confines this season. The Utes posted games of 10 and 11 sacks away from Rice-Eccles on their way to another season of leading the Pac-12 in sacks. That bodes well for the Utes’ prospects in tonight's Foster Farms Bowl against Indiana, which isn’t expected to be nearly as loud as their home games.
The pass rush will be solely reliant on the quality of Utah’s defensive talent, and Whittingham is more than confident in that.
“We’ve become known as a pretty good place at developing defensive lineman,” he said. “And we have four very good players starting up front again this year.”
There’s Dimick, who leads the Pac-12 with 14.5 sacks and has a chance to finish the season with the national lead. Then there's Lowell Lotulelei, a bona fide 310-pound run stuffer who regularly commands double-teams that open lanes for his teammates. Pita Taumoepenu and Filipo Mokofisi, Utah's two other starters up front, have combined for 11 of the team's league-best 40 sacks.
The Utes have indeed proficiently developed defensive linemen; six alumni from that position group are currently playing in the NFL. Star Lotulelei, Lowell's older brother, and Nate Orchard, who led the nation with 1.4 sacks per game in 2014, are the two newest names on that list. Its membership total should increase next year.
Utah believes its takeaway numbers -- 28 this season to rank No. 6 nationally, and 34 in 2015 to rank No. 2 -- are a direct result of pressure generated up front.
"Great defense starts at the line of scrimmage," Whittingham said.
The Utes' first key is to force opponents into obvious passing situations. That's where Lotulelei's run-stopping prowess comes in especially handy on early downs. Once opponents are forced to throw, Utah trusts its defensive backs to survive in single coverage much more often than the average team. The front can then pin its ears back and punch it full throttle after opposing quarterbacks.
"We do face double-teams that try to slow us down," Whittingham said. "But the problem with that is -- with our guys -- it's a rob Peter to pay Paul type of deal. All four of our starters are very good players, so when a double-team happens, we're equipped to take advantage of that."
The Utes have capitalized so often that their fan base has taken real notice. Skill-position players -- those who score the touchdowns -- generally receive the bulk of recognition around college football. Trench warriors often perform their critical work under the radar. That's not the case in Sack Lake City, where a savvy name acknowledging the big boys up front has grabbed popularity.
"We love being able to leave a mark in our shape and fashion," Dimick said. "It's an added bonus that we get recognition. People appreciate it and that's awesome."