Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune was a fantastic interview, even if he’d rather be talking about golf. The Utes and Ducks are about to play the most anticipated PAC-12 title game in its short history, and Kurt provided some great insight into the program. Be sure to give it a listen before the big game.
The most significant change I observed in once and future OC Ludwig’s offense is far less conservative playcalling, particularly on 3rd downs. In previous seasons, Utah tended to play it safe on 3rd & long situations - a run, screen, or quick pass short of the sticks, figuring that the ballcarrier might make a play and pick it up, but at worst they’d just punt and play defense … trusting those two excellent squads instead of offensive gambling.
What I’m seeing in the five Utah games I charted this season, however, is taking those intermediate-to-downfield shots instead, relying on senior #1 QB Huntley to stay in the pocket and make a big play. I also think that opposing defenses’ expectation of conservatism has helped Utah out in these situations, since I see a lot of tight underneath play but open coverage over the top. Some examples:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them at ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - ASU shows a jailhouse blitz and backs out two, but it’s the wrong two - they’re expecting a quick hitch from the boundary receiver, and have only two DBs over trips to the field. One of the latter runs a curl at the sticks and gets the DB’s attention, leaving #80 TE Kuithe wide open for 20 more yards than Utah needs.
- :09 - Rushing only three and playing a soft cover-3 doesn’t work either, as #21 WR Enis at 6’3” gets inside the CB to wall him off and the safety isn’t in position to help in time.
- :18 - The pocket collapses pretty quickly under this unconventional blitz -- a common theme -- but Huntley has gotten a lot better at stepping out of the mess and keeping his eyes downfield. UCLA is having a hard time staying in man coverage on either receiver, and Huntley would probably be better off slinging it to #45 WR Nacua instead of across to #25 WR Dixon on the long drag route, but this shows how patient with route development Utah is willing to be even on 3rd downs under pressure.
- :37 - CU is in cover-2. They lock up the sideline route and pair of 2-yard receivers, but this is 3rd & 13 and Utah this season is going to make that throw between the open safeties past the sticks every time.
The reason that’s such a significant change in 3rd down tendencies is that Utah’s offense is much less efficient on 1st and 2nd downs than I remember it being in previous seasons. In the five games I charted, they weren’t a run-first offense prior to garbage time, with about a 50/50 split in run/pass balance on 1st down. They’re slightly underwater in per-play efficiency - 46 successful plays vs 47 failed ones on 1st & 10, and on top of that about 15% of 1st down plays went backwards due to a sack, tackle for loss, or penalty (Utah gets 7.3 flags per game, worst in the conference and 110th in the nation).
That’s compounded by a mismatch between their playcalling effectiveness and frequency on 2nd & longs - they rush about 60% of the time in such situations, but are only successful on about 31% of such runs given the down & distance.
What that adds up to is being in 2nd & long on about 61% of all 2nd downs, and 3rd & medium or long on 68% of their 3rd downs. In other words, defenses have been pretty effective in forcing Utah to have to make a long play on 3rd down to stay on the field … and then Utah does just that.
What hasn’t changed is that Huntley is a pretty cool operator even with a collapsing pocket, and has improvised some pretty remarkable plays under pressure:
- :00 - ASU covered the deep stuff long enough for the loop stunt to come around and force Huntley up, but rather than running he dumps it off to his stud #2 RB Moss who cuts through the soft underneath coverage.
- :23 - UCLA’s DE anticipates the possibility of this play-action bootleg, but the safety hasn’t and allows the H-back to run wide open. Huntley’s ability to make this throw just as he’s getting clobbered is impressive.
- :39 - Arizona successfully collapses the pocket with just four rushers against max protect, but despite that all of their linebackers drop out, even the ones with no boundary receivers to actually cover, allowing Huntley an easy scramble.
- :47 - This was the most Utah play I saw all season - #69 RT Moala gives up pressure, #55 RG uses unconventional blocking technique, Huntley magically escapes a sack and throws a perfect pass to Kuithe who’s somehow gotten himself wide open for a touchdown.
For all of its explosive potential, Utah’s passing attack is not quite as efficient on a per-play basis as I expected, with 50 successful dropbacks to 45 failed ones on my tally sheet. The biggest problem is that Utah’s offensive line is probably the weakest unit that they field, and allows quite a bit of pressure - about 35% of all dropbacks I charted resulted in a sack, scramble, or throwaway. Adding to the problem is that while Huntley doesn’t really panic under pressure, he does tend to get tunnel vision when it’s coming and locks on to a single receiver. Some examples:
- :00 - Utah doesn’t have enough blockers for this 6-man blitz, but rather than hit the hot route to the RB, he’s staring down #3 WR Simpkins. The DB who’s supposed to be falling on the RB reads Huntley’s eyes and hangs back in double coverage, forcing a bad throw over him and nearly generating an interception - something I saw three times in this game alone.
- :13 - Here #71 LG Daniels gets bullrushed into the QB, and the right side of the line (freshman backup #53 RG Maea and Ford moonlighting as a tackle; depth is a serious problem at OL) can’t handle the OLB.
- :33 - Moala takes the wrong guy in blitz protection, though Moss adjusts to pick up the inside backer instead. Nacua has impressively executed his rub, leaving Dixon wide open to walk in for a touchdown, but Huntley is locked onto Kuithe and overthrows him.
- :40 - Huntley never gets off his first read to #8 WR Vickers on the wheel, and when pressure gets around the edge he steps up … at first I thought he’d hit Dixon wide open on the crosser right in front of him, but instead he just runs right into the DT that #50 C Umana doesn’t have firm control of.
Those offensive line issues spill over into the rushing offense as well, and for the first time I’ve charted Utah they’re underwater in per-play rush efficiency - 63 successful designed runs to 66 failed ones. They’re also not generating much in the way of explosive runs, with only 9% of designed rushes going for more than 10 yards that I saw, including only 3% for more than 20. If you give Utah the benefit of striking minimal runs in short-yardage situations (goalline, 3rd & 1, etc), and strike three long runs against Arizona’s hapless defense, their average falls to just 3.7 ypc over 110 carries that I charted. Some examples:
- :00 - Umana gets too high on his block and as soon as Ford moves up off the chip to the backer the other DT crushes him from the side, letting both into the backfield while Moala surrenders his leverage to the backer.
- :05 - A relatively rare run out of 10-personnel shotgun, UCLA knows this is going to the boundary from where Moss is lined up and so slants across the line, blowing up Daniels and earning a holding flag on Ford.
- :12 - The entire left side of the line is taking the wrong zone blocking assignments. They’re supposed to be walling off the edge of the defense on this outside run, which means #77 LT Paulo needs to be widening before getting up to the MIKE, Daniels the SAM, and Umana the DE.
- :23 - Moss is pressing the middle then bouncing outside to follow Daniels’ pull, but that’s interrupted by #85 TE Thedford getting rocked back by the DE, and Moala hasn’t effectively moved up to the second level. They try to cut back inside, but Ford has lost control of the DT who makes the tackle.
As alluded to above, Utah does a fairly good job of concealing the playcall with the formation, with one exception: about a quarter of the time, they operate out of the shotgun with no tight ends - that’s their passing formation, and they only run about 20% of the time out of it. Most of the remaining snaps (excluding a few oddball ones where the playcall is obvious) are shotgun or under-center with one or two tight ends, and those average out to about a 60/40 run:pass balance. They’re a little more likely to pass with one tight end, more likely to run with two, but the variation’s not big enough to give the playcall away.
Another interesting change to the playbook we discussed with Kurt on the podcast is that read-option runs have been cut down quite a bit in favor of straight handoffs, part of an effort to keep Huntley upright. That’s put more pressure on Moss, but he’s an exceptional back who’s very difficult to bring down. More than 30% of all of Utah’s successful rushes are what I code as YACO, for “yards after contact only” - that is, if Moss had gone down on first contact it would have been a failed play, but instead he powers through it to flip that rep into the win column. Here are some examples of his great play that should be self-explanatory:
An interesting pattern emerged this season that we discussed with Kurt: even though a lot of Utah games ended with comfortable margins and several blowout wins, many of them were fairly close for most of the game, until a point came where it broke open for Utah - usually around a dumb mistake by the opponent like a turnover, special teams snafu, ill-advised 4th down failure, etc.
On investigating further, I think I know why: while Utah’s pass defense is absolutely elite on a per-play basis, their rush defense this season has been surprisingly inefficient - succeeding against 35 designed rushes vs 38 failures. In those 73 rushes I charted, I only saw four negative plays, while they gave up 19 chunk-yardage runs. What makes this very difficult to detect is that opponents just aren’t running that much against Utah, even prior to garbage time: in the same five games I charted 128 pass defenses, over 75% more than opponent rushes.
I believe what’s happening is that opponents are able to stay in the game as long as they can keep running the ball, and indeed move fairly effectively down the field. But the instant they suffer a setback, they tend to panic and abandon the run, which is a catastrophic mistake - Utah’s pass defense eats them alive, they fall farther behind and pass even more, creating a virtuous circle that results in a rapid blowout.
The key to understanding all of this is the highly aggressive linebacker play. In DC Scalley’s 4-2-5 defense, the backers are the fulcrum of the system, and have to come down hard on the run with one fewer player than a traditional 4-3. This can be very effective, and #13 LB Bernard and #20 LB Lloyd have been impressive in replacing longtime starters Chase Hanson and Cody Barton after they left for the NFL (Bernard’s improvement in particular has surprised me; I was fairly critical of him as a backup in 2018). But if they pick the wrong gap or face a misdirection play, there can be a lot of empty field to run to. To illustrate:
- :00 - This is how it’s supposed to work: Bernard correctly diagnosis the counter and races to the gap before the blocker can get there, knocking left guard off of his combo block and into the back.
- :19 - Bernard starts into the strongside B-gap before the snap, Lloyd follows to the A-gap, and four DBs head strongside as well. A little patience and a cut to the weakside is all the back needs to slip through for a conversion and extra yardage.
- :28 - Utah stacks the box and even brings in their seldom-used third backer, #24 LB Lund. Lloyd moves in to deal with a cutback, Lund sees the gap opening and darts for it, but doesn’t realize the center and RG can get off their blocks to take him out, leaving only a high safety to stop a touchdown.
- :44 - Again, the backers guess wrong and leave the middle of the field undefended.
The pass defense, however, is at a phenomenal 82 successful plays vs just 45 failed ones, a 64% success rate that’s truly playoff-caliber. It combines an excellent pass rush with stifling downfield coverage, and there’s really no hope if you become a one-dimensional offense and Utah can start blitzing frequently:
- :00 - Utah brings the house, but even if they didn’t have a free rusher, Lloyd and #23 S Blackmon quickly defeat their blocks and force a bad throw that’s easily broken up by the outstanding #1 CB Johnson.
- :10 - Interesting blitz structure here, including the unexpected choice to back out #99 DT Fotu in underneath coverage of the crosser.
- :23 - Another great break-up by Johnson, the timing’s critical here to avoid an interference flag but he’s getting it right and playing the ball.
- :31 - Here’s the incredible #6 DE Anae at work, thoroughly whipping the LT. He always played on the offense’s left side, so it should be an interesting match-up between the best two linemen in the Pac-12 (although Kurt says that Coach Whittingham hinted he might switch to the right sometimes tomorrow).
Beating Utah’s pass defense is a pretty rare event, and in the games I charted, doing so required some special tactics. Here are some examples of the ones that worked more than once:
- :00 - This play-action bootleg is another way of using the defense’s aggression against it, here getting the entire defense to flow to the field and allowing the tight end to leak out to the boundary.
- :08 - I’m certain that the Huskies borrowed this play from the Ducks, as I hadn’t seen them use it prior to this game. Even if #14 CB Nurse (definitely the weaker of the two starting corners) hadn’t slipped, both #26 S Burgess and #28 DB Guidry had bitten on the fake screen and left the TE wide open heading for the corner of the endzone.
- :21 - The defense rotates personnel quite a bit, and I tallied about 5% of their plays looking like this one: still trotting out while the offense was over the ball or otherwise not being ready for the snap. Colorado also demonstrated last week that they could move the ball effectively if they played hurry-up and didn’t let the line substitute.
- :28 - Utah looks like they’re in man coverage at first, but it’s actually zone, which means the safety initially over the slot man has to move out to cover the back motioning out. The QB reads this before Burgess can get over to cover the slot on this seam route for an easy completion.