NCF Nation: Matt Martinez

By the numbers: TCU vs. Utah defense

November, 1, 2010
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.

Midseason Report: Utah

October, 12, 2010
Utah Utes

Record: 5-0, (2-0 MWC)

There were question marks surrounding Utah going into the season because the Utes had to replace seven starters on defense, including all the starting linebackers and three starting defensive backs. But watching the way Utah has started the season, you would never know it has such a young unit. The defense came together right away, shutting down Dion Lewis in the season-opening win against Pittsburgh. Though many questioned the strength of schedule because of wins over UNLV, New Mexico and San Jose State, Utah answered the doubters with a whopping 68-27 at Iowa State last Saturday. The Utes have outscored opponents 101-7 in the second quarter. Jordan Wynn has played well, but so has Terrance Cain, who started two games while Wynn sat out with a sprained thumb. The new linebackers -- Matt Martinez, Chaz Walker and Chad Manis -- have been outstanding. True freshman safety Brian Blechen is playing well. Shaky Smithson has been incredible on special teams. And coach Kyle Whittingham says this is his best team in the way of chemistry in 16 years at Utah. But the end of the season is a doozy. Starting Oct. 30, Utah plays at Air Force, then a huge game against TCU, at Notre Dame, at San Diego State and BYU.

Offensive MVP: QBs Jordan Wynn and Terrance Cain. Split honors here, and Whittingham would most likely approve because he has praised the unselfishness of this team. Wynn has played well, but Cain stepped in and the Utes didn’t miss a beat when Wynn was hurt. Combined, the two have thrown for 1,215 yards, 12 touchdowns, two interceptions and have completed 71 percent of their passes.

Defensive MVP: MLB Chaz Walker. Walker began his career as a walk-on but has quickly flourished in his new starting role. He leads the team in tackles with 42, ranking sixth in the Mountain West in tackles per game (8.4). Martinez and Manis deserve mention here, too, as the three starting linebackers are ranked 1-2-3 on the team in tackles.

Utah quietly creeps into top 10

October, 7, 2010
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.

[+] EnlargeLamar Chapman
Ric Tapia/Icon SMICornerback Lamar Chapman attributes the defense's chemistry to the team being so "unified."
“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.”

A closer look at Utah-Pitt

September, 1, 2010
Thursday night's showdown between Pittsburgh and Utah features two teams with conference title and BCS aspirations, plus some good ol' bragging rights between the Big East and the Mountain West conferences.

For a closer look at this game, national blogger Andrea Adelson and Big East blogger Brian Bennett break down each team's strengths and weaknesses:


Strengths: The offense is a definite strength with eight starters returning, including quarterback Jordan Wynn. The sophomore started the final five games of last season and had a breakout performance in the Poinsettia Bowl against California, throwing for 338 yards and three touchdown passes. He is now completely comfortable in the spread system Utah runs, and has been given the ability to call audibles this season as well.

First-team All-Mountain West Conference running back Eddie Wide returns and so does Matt Asiata -- the two combined for -- 1,399 yards last season and 16 touchdowns. Watch for wide receiver Jereme Brooks to have a breakout season.

Weaknesses: Utah lost its top four tacklers from 2009 and has to replace seven starters on defense, including all three at linebacker and three in the secondary. The projected starter at rover, JJ Williams, is out with a foot injury, leaving Matt Martinez and Chaz Walker to start alongside converted quarterback Chad Manis. Tackle Koa Misi is also gone, along with his 4.5 sacks. But Utah does have depth on the defensive line, and leading sackmaster Sealver Siliga is back and expected to anchor the front.


Strengths: Start with the running game, as Dion Lewis returns after his phenomenal, 1,799-yard freshman season. When the Panthers aren't handing off to Lewis or terrific backup tailback Ray Graham, they're likely throwing the ball deep to Jon Baldwin, a 6-foot-5 athletic freak who is a potential NFL first-rounder next spring.

On defense, Pitt has two of the best defensive ends anywhere in seniors Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus. The Panthers don't need to blitz much because of the pressure their defensive front generates.

Weaknesses: Though strong on the edges, Pitt's offensive line is breaking in three new starters on the offensive line, including a former walk-on at center (Alex Karabin) and a thoroughly untested right guard (Greg Gaskins). That could mean less running room for Lewis and less time in the pocket for new starting quarterback Tino Sunseri. Coaches have confidence in Sunseri, but he's still playing his first important snaps in a tough road environment.

The Panthers also showed some vulnerability in pass coverage last year, and they will be lining up with two new starting cornerbacks.
Utah senior linebacker Nai Fotu suffered a torn ACL during Thursday’s spring practice and will miss the 2010 season.

It is the same injury to Fotu's left knee that he suffered in the final regular season game of 2008.

After recovering from that surgery, he returned to the field in 2009 as a backup defensive end. Fotu was listed as a starting linebacker this year (played the same position in 2008).

Fotu had a redshirt season available and plans to return to the Utes in 2011.

He has played in 38 games the past three seasons, missing only the 2008 Sugar Bowl because of the knee injury against BYU. He’s amassed 69 tackles, six sacks and forced three fumbles.

Matt Martinez, a 6-foot, 228-pound junior who played in 11 games last season is listed as Fotu’s backup on the depth chart.