- Associated Press - Thursday, September 10, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - No. 24 Utah has built a reputation as a defensive stalwart with an attacking front-seven that harasses quarterbacks. The defense gave a signal-caller fits again in the Utes’ season-opening win - this time Michigan’s Jake Rudock - but in a way that signaled a possible changing of the guard within the unit that presents a different challenge for Utah State.

Utah was lavished with praise in 2014 after leading the nation with 55 sacks, but it was the defensive backfield that posted gaudy numbers against the Wolverines with three interceptions and one returned for a score. Meanwhile, the Aggies, who make the 82-mile trek south for Friday’s game at Utah, struggled throwing the ball in their opener against Southern Utah and finished with just 140 passing yards, one interception and no touchdowns.

The rich got richer this week with Utah cornerback Dominique Hatfield back. Hatfield was penciled in as the starter before being suspended after an arrest during the summer. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham wouldn’t say when Hatfield would actually take the field, but his addition will only strengthen the group - whenever that is.

“You can never have too many good cover guys,” Whittingham said. “As much man coverage as we play, that’s vital to our success.”

Utah State coach Matt Wells understands the test in front of him, and it doesn’t help being down a receiver. Senior Hunter Sharp started 12 games in 2014 and earned an all-conference honorable mention but he is suspended for the first two games for a violation of team rules. Wells said issues at receiver were part of the problem last week, including not having Sharp or Brandon Swindall in the 12-9 win.

“When you’re not playing as one heartbeat on offense, it doesn’t look very good,” Wells said. “… We didn’t play very well on the perimeter. When you don’t play very well on the perimeter and sometimes you don’t protect well, that’s what it’s going to look like.”

Things to watch when Utah hosts Utah State on Friday:

DON’T FORGET ABOUT US: The Utah defensive backfield may have gotten the interceptions, but the front seven still pressured Michigan’s quarterback. Rudock got the ball out of his hands quickly and the Utes were pushing the pocket with just four linemen. The game was called fairly vanilla and the front seven still held Michigan to just 2.6 yards per carry. Whittingham was pleased with their play, but still expects more. “You don’t always have to sack him, buy you’ve got to affect him more,” Whittingham said.

COUNTING ON CHUCKIE: Utah State had high hopes for a finally healthy Chuckie Keeton. The senior quarterback threw for 3,373 yards and rushed for 619 in 2012 and scored 35 touchdowns. But the last two seasons were plagued by injuries. Things didn’t get off to a good start this season with the offense failing to score a touchdown. The Aggies need that to change quickly.

MISSING IN ACTION: The Utes had just four catches for 26 yards between starting outside receivers Kenneth Scott and Tyrone Smith in the season opener. That wasn’t an issue with running back Devontae Booker and slot receivers Britain Covey and Bubba Poole combining for 15 receptions and 135 yards, but that can’t be a weekly occurrence. Utah hopes to get Tim Patrick back from an injury this week and get the wide receivers more action.

BULLSEYE ON BOOKER: The Aggies led the Mountain West Conference in run defense the last two years and have their eyes on Booker, who ran for 1,512 yards last season. “It’s very important and it’s something Utah State’s defense has prided itself on over the last couple of years, people don’t run on us,” Utah State linebacker Kyler Fackrell said.


Follow Kareem Copeland on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KareemCopeland


AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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