Utah’s run game is as lethal as advertised. I tallied 34 successful rushing plays vs 20 failed plays in their last two games. There’s not a lot of explosive running, but they’re efficient and get a lot of chunk plays. Interestingly, despite having a highly mobile QB for most of those games, his run threat was not a big part of the offense … instead, it was almost entirely the excellent #2 RB Moss (reminder - you can right-click or long-press on any of these videos to play them at ¼ or ½ speed):
The first play shows their 14-personnel formation (which they’re in about a fifth of the time), with all five skill players bunched in tight; the versatility here is when the blocks don’t develop playside Moss reverses course and the defense is mostly cleared out, and he powers forward for extra yardage. On the second play (at :08), the QB should probably have kept the ball because the safety doesn’t bite, but Moss is powerful enough to spin through contact behind the line and get the 1st down. On the last play (at :21), the o-line washes down and #89 TE Fotheringham and #44 TE Jackson clear the backers, but Moss turns this from a 1-yard pickup to an 8-yard one by running through three defenders.
The curious thing is that, similar to the Huskies and the Bruins, I didn’t think much of their run-blocking, and on a third of their successful rushes I’ve got marked down that the blocking should have resulted in a failed play but Moss picked up significant yards after contact. Some examples of what I’m seeing when the run-blocks break down:
On the first play we’ve got the phone booth again, with Fotheringham not quick enough to pick up the DE shooting the gap behind the pulling guard and #70 LT Barton losing the OLB. On the second play (at :05), both #79 RG Agasiva and #77 RT Paulo seem slow to get out of their stances and this allows the blitzers to get behind them before they can block anyone. The last play (at :12) is an outside zone run which requires a lot more mobility than these huge lineman have - #50 C Umana is having trouble staying outside of his man, and both Agasiva and Paulo aren’t maintaining their blocks with good footwork but rather just shoving the defenders away, and they come right back to make the tackle.
I think that this issue with the o-line’s technique spills over into pass protection as well. Prior to garbage time in the two games I watched, I counted 20 successful dropbacks vs 24 failures (19-20 for #1 QB Huntley, 1-4 for #15 QB Shelley), there were only three deep downfield shots which required a lot of protection time to set up, and 13 of those 44 called passing plays turned into a scramble or a sack (curiously, I saw zero throwaways and only four screens). Some examples:
On the first play, #55 LG Ford seems like he’s got the box count wrong and lets the DE by, and #6 RB Shyne can’t pick him up. On the second play (at :16) Ford gets beat pretty badly, and then compounds the error by not blocking the looping DT who puts a second hit on the QB, and Paulo’s on the turf and unable to stop the third hit. On the third play (at :37), we’re back inside the phone booth, but this time three skill players stay home to protect the QB and only two go downfield … eight blockers turn out to be adequate to hold off a four-man pass rush, but seven men in coverage against only two receivers don’t suit this offense very well, with predictable results.
Fortunately for Utah, they’ve got some pretty talented receivers and a scheme that suits their talent well (and compensates for pass protection breakdowns). Note that all of the following examples are relatively short throws out of play-action:
The first play is a simple curl into the flat by the sure-handed #18 WR Covey, but the play-action has the OLB covering that zone completely mesmerized, and Covey picks up another couple yards after contact with time to gather himself. On the second play (at :08), another use of the 14 package has #80 TE Kuithe crossing under the formation and losing the defense; this should be just about three yards and maybe a turn up the sideline but instead he cuts inside and runs through half a dozen tackles for the 1st down and more. On the last play (at :17), the safeties are glued to the far hash fearing the run, leaving the CB in single coverage on #21 WR Enis on the slant, who not only beats him off the break but hangs on through the tackle and reaches for the endzone.
It’s difficult to evaluate Shelley as a backup QB since he’s only played 12 meaningful snaps the last two weeks. That sample size is too small to say anything meaningful about his floor and ceiling, and even watching his garbage time drives in both games I wasn’t able to take away much because of how the defense was playing. Furthermore, those dozen meaningful snaps, with the exception of one dumpoff pass and a tunnel screen, were uniformly disastrous, and my rule against making “lowlight” films of a kid applies to everyone. So the following description will have to suffice.
Other than the two throws mentioned, he dropped back to pass on four plays prior to garbage time: a checkdown to a RB (correct read, throwing to the void created by a late rusher) but badly inaccurate and dropped; a sack created by a 6-man blitz in which both the RT and the RB are in pass-pro and got beat; a deep pass down the sideline off his back foot which was badly overthrown and hurried a bit by the pass rush pushing back a blocking TE; and another back-foot overthrow but a sluggo route this time and with unblocked pressure because the RT got confused by a line stunt. He also took the snap on six meaningful rushing plays: four were handoffs with 50/50 success; one was an inside zone-read keeper on which he had two defenders stay home but he kept anyway and took a big tackle for loss; the last was a QB draw after a fake screen pass but the center whiffed on the DT and again produced a big TFL.
If I were forced to make a comparison based on the very little I saw, garbage time included, I’d say the QB against whom Oregon has played that’s the closest is Cal’s Chase Garbers - he can throw it deep if he has time to work, he’s got some mobility and running is part of his book, but he’s undersized, and accuracy and decision-making are freshman-caliber. But it’s entirely possible all of that goes up in smoke after a week to settle into the starting role.
With the news late last night that Moss may be out for the season with a knee injury, I scoured my notes for how Utah’s backups, Shyne and #4 RB Green, performed in the last two games. Unfortunately, evaluating them is even harder than it is Shelley, as they had five carries combined prior to garbage time (they each had quite a few on the last drive of a 31-point blowout against UCLA, but even prior to that point I had noted the Bruins defense waving the white flag so these plays are pretty worthless). They both seemed fine in those carries, no obvious flaws, but I never saw anything close to Moss’ extraordinary ability to run through tackles.
The strength of this defense is certainly the line, it’s got a full rotation of big athletic guys with great technique. I think this shows up the most in the rush defense - despite facing two of the best backs in the conference, they still had a net-positive rushing success rate on my tally sheet. Here’s what they look like at their best, I trust these need no explanation:
Interestingly, despite playing a 4-3 almost exclusively, much of the way the d-line operates is by opening a gap for the LBs to crash through. And the safeties typically play high and it’s usually just two LBs in the defensive backfield, so they’re put into a lot of isos. That puts a lot of pressure on those backers to pick the right lane, and when the rush defense failed it was almost always because they didn’t. Some examples:
On the first play, neither #36 LB Bernard nor #30 LB Barton are quite ready for the snap, and the former vacates the middle of the field while the latter gets sucked onto the wrong side of the tackle. On the second play (at :14), #22 LB Hanson is the read defender and makes a pretty good effort at slowing the back down, but nobody’s there to take advantage of it - Barton has run himself out of the play and the secondary hesitates coming down. On the last play (at :35), Barton is way outside of the play, and Hanson sticks his nose in too early with nobody behind him in run support - though credit #15 S Ballard with hurrying down to make a strong tackle short of the sticks.
Pass defense is similarly above .500, but I can’t say I noticed any particular patterns or big strengths or weaknesses worth writing about. I’ll pick some representative plays instead; here’s the good stuff:
On the first play, a nice move by #92 DE Tupai gets him into the backfield and the QB promptly throws it away. The second play (at :06) is a nicely designed crosser with a well timed ball, but #28 DB Guidry and #23 CB Blackmon keep their eyes right and crash hard on the receiver before he can make the line to gain … Guidry is so fast that he can play the softer nickel spot, slip and fall as he reverses, and still get the tackle. On the last play (at :15), watch Blackmon’s hips - he does let the receiver get behind him, but he never completely flips them, instead keeping his torso ready to watch and play the ball, nearly coming up with the pick.
And the bad:
On the first play, I can’t quite figure out what the assignments are supposed to be, but at any rate this is clearly a miscommunication about who’s got the TE vs the RB, something I saw a few times. On the second play (at :08), everybody’s playing the sticks on this 3rd down play - Tupai is on the WR then the RB checkdown, and Hanson takes the handoff with Blackmon over the top, but Barton loses track of where the sticks are … the offense has sent two dumpoff men to the line and communicated pretty clearly what it wants to do, but he just gives the slot receiver a mean stare as he makes the 1st down grab. On the last play (at :15), I am at a loss as to how this coverage is supposed to operate but I saw it several times in downfield coverage - I think #1 CB Johnson is clouding the X but he’s completely turned around on what turns out to be the world’s simplest go route.