Special thanks to Avery of the No Truck Stops podcast for talking with me about Utah’s roster on the Quack 12 podcast. Listen HERE.
Stylistically, there aren’t a lot of differences between Utah’s offense this year and the last time Oregon played them at the end of 2019. If anything, OC Ludwig has gone even further down the path of deploying multiple tight end sets, since he’s added a third TE into the regular rotation and virtually every snap is in 12- or 13-personnel.
For a 2021 statistical comparison, the offense that most resembles Utah’s in the figures I track is UCLA’s - good rushing efficiency and explosion, a somewhat explosive but only modestly efficient passing game, and frequent scrambles due to offensive line breakdowns which are rescued by a quarterback who excels at out-of-structure play. Of course, the Utes have a far less diverse playbook than the Bruins.
Against FBS competition, Utah has had 129 successful designed rushes vs 102 failed ones, given the down & distance, or a 55.8% success rate. They’re averaging 6.3 yards per carry outside of garbage time, and about 18% gain 10+ yards. The Utes field three very strong backs — #2 RB Bernard, #5 RB Pledger, and #9 RB Thomas — and I attribute most of their rushing success to excellent play from those three, breaking tackles and earning yards after contact. Here’s a representative sample of successful rushes:
- :00 - Here the Utes are in 13-personnel and their tendencies indicate the run will be to the two-TE side. The defense is slightly balanced that way but the linebackers are slow off the snap to recognize it and #86 TE Kincaid quickly seals inside the backer on the line. #80 TE Kuithe doesn’t get a great wham block coming under the formation on the DB but it’s enough with no other defensive help for Pledger to get to the sideline.
- :14 - Elegance is pretty rare in Utah’s rushes, usually they look like this - simply smashing an undersized defensive front.
- :32 - The QB occasionally keeps in this offense, and his YPC on designed runs is actually the highest on the team. But it’s mostly straight handoffs, like this fake RPO where the endaround is just to freeze the DB momentarily and the unblocked end makes a beeline for the back who gets the ball. Still, Thomas is powerful enough to break the tackle in the backfield for a substantial gain.
- :41 - This is obviously man coverage and motioning the slot receiver away from the play clears out the entire field side for an easy outside run. The defense is playing a very heavy box and Utah avoids all of it with an option pitch. Creativity like this is common on Utah’s opening drives; this option play wasn’t used the rest of the game.
Thomas has about 45% of the carries on the season with Bernard and Pledger evenly splitting the rest. After getting a little dinged up two weeks ago against Stanford, Thomas was held out last week against Arizona, though reportedly he’ll be ready to play on Saturday. On the podcast, Avery and I discussed how much difference there is between the three backs - she attributes some of the reason that last week’s game was closer than most expected to Thomas’ absence, as she thinks he’s more likely to break tackles and earn big runs. I’m skeptical of that theory and can’t detect any such difference from film or their numbers - all three backs, excluding each of their single longest runs of the season and all garbage-time rushes, register between 4.9 and 5.2 yards per carry, though Thomas does have the highest figure.
There are two ways that the rushing offense gets into trouble. The first is the typical one - there just isn’t elite run blocking in this offense, in my opinion. My tally sheet has an over 18% error rate for each o-lineman, and there’s been a shocking (for such a conservative program with a longtime OL coach, anyway) amount of shuffling of this line since the end of the 2019 season, a full account of which is given on the podcast. After reading reports and talking to Avery, I think we’ll see basically the same o-line take the field as Utah has used in the entire second half of the season - they appear to have lost their backup center to an injury last week but should be getting back their original center and left guard, and have essentially been playing the same right guard and pair of tackles for the last six weeks.
The second issue in the rushing offense is that, after some creativity to start each game, Ludwig settles into very vanilla playcalling for the rest of the game. Avery and I discussed this extensively on the podcast and it seems to give her as much distress as it did me when I was watching Ludwig as Oregon’s OC from 2002-04 in Autzen Stadium. In fact I called that pattern out in my 2019 summer preview of Utah when he was re-hired there after bouncing around several programs and landing at Vanderbilt:
He had a very similar situation in Nashville — excellent backs and a shaky o-line — and while there are some creative outside runs in the first couple scripted drives, as the game went on he would both get very conventional with run play design and inevitably abandon all but a few basic rushes in the second half.
That extreme predictability plays out formationally as well: they run the ball about 75% of the time when under center, which drops to only 28% when in the shotgun. Here’s a representative sample of failed rushing plays:
- :00 - ASU’s got it right this time around - they’re flowing instantly to the playside and while again the backer on the end of the line is getting sealed inside, the DE is beating the RT and the CB runs right past Kincaid.
- :08 - Kincaid and the LG are losing their blocks here pretty quickly.
- :25 - Both the center and LT are flagged for holding here, but even if they had maintained proper blocks Kuithe is getting beat by the backer and the unblocked backside DE has caught up to the back.
- :44 - This play and its result is far and away the single most common on my tally sheet - seven blockers, an eight-man box, a dumb crash of humanity, and the ball goes nowhere.
In the third quarter against San Diego State, Utah changed quarterbacks from #12 QB Brewer, who’s since transferred out of the program, to #7 QB Rising, who’s taken every snap since. There are some substantial differences in how they play — Rising is much more willing to extend plays and try deep shots — and as such I’ve excluded Brewer’s snaps from all pass stats given below.
Utah’s passing figures are a little curious - 116 successful designed passing plays vs 99 failed ones, or a 53.9% efficiency rate, which is better than most Pac-12 teams but still not great. They’re averaging 7.0 yards per pass attempt, which is a bit lower than expected for that efficiency number, while they’re getting about 16.5% of dropbacks to gain 15+ yards, which is a little higher than expected.
The solution to that puzzle is frequent quarterback scrambles, all but two of which have been successful when he runs the ball and eight of which have produced double-digit gains. In general Rising has really impressed me with his boldness - he refuses to take sacks and very rarely throws the ball away, instead often making a heroic throw just before getting hit. Some examples:
- :00 - This is a very common 3rd & long playcall - a near automatic dumpoff to one of the tight ends. Single coverage with no underneath support (remarkably absent when ASU is dropping eight) just doesn’t work against these guys.
- :16 - Rising humiliated OSU several times in this game with 3rd down scrambles; the Beavs lacked a plan for him escaping the pocket and the footspeed to catch him when he did.
- :34 - UCLA got burned a few times trying for interceptions or hard-hit breakups instead of playing sound coverage. As usual with the Bruins, blitzing and not getting home almost guarantees a reception.
- :47 - Arizona’s blitzes were more effective, here the DB is hurrying the throw by crashing hard into the back. The confidence that Rising has in #18 WR Covey here is amazing, he’s letting this go while the man covering him is still three yards downfield and the rub hasn’t worked.
But as Avery mentioned on the podcast, Rising is almost the sole source of ambition in this offense. Most of the time they’re content with dumpoffs to tight ends or the backs, and rarely have more than one wide receiver who’s a serious target in the pattern. It’s an efficiency approach that doubles down on what the run game does, rather than complement it with very many shot plays except as Rising improvises them when the pass rush gets him in trouble. Some examples:
- :00 - Rollouts like this one are pretty common in this offense. Rising is never going to let himself take the sack so he’ll always get rid of the ball, but he can pretty easily be engineered into dumping if off for no gain as he does here to #89 TE Fotheringham.
- :07 - The three-man rush works here as the OLB splits the LT and LG. True to form Rising scrambles, resets, and tries a heave to Kuithe. The latter’s pleas for a DPI flag go unanswered.
- :24 - I have quite a few of these on my tally sheet - Rising would rather risk an interception on a jump pass to dirt the ball midfield than take a sack when the blitz gets home.
- :31 - Both tackles are beat here and the holding flag for one of them calls back this long play. Avery and I talked about this one and others like it on the podcast; it’s remarkable that despite Rising’s hurried and backfooted launch he places the ball pretty well, and she thinks he throws better under pressure.
DC Scalley is operating the same 4-2-5 defense as he has for the better part of the last decade. The hallmarks are an aggressive and immediate attack by the front six, often supplemented by the nickelback in the box, along with a secondary that’s trusted to play on islands and frequently blitzes out of cover-1.
The best part of Utah’s defense this year is preventing explosive passes - they’re only giving up 15+ yard passing plays about 12.5% of the time, and that has the effect of limiting offenses to just 6.8 yards per pass attempt outside of garbage time. On my tally sheet their pass rush really dials it up on 3rd & long and prevents the QB from setting up for longer passes, with the back end only needing to hold up for a few seconds and make immediate tackles on short routes. Some examples:
- :00 - It’s 3rd down and so Utah is blitzing, with the DBs parking their heels on the line to gain at the 35. Good quick trigger to hit the back and stop the conversion.
- :11 - Utah’s defensive ends are big and physical; they don’t get home without blitzing very often but when they do it’s devastating, like this strip-sack by #42 DE Tafua.
- :33 - I don’t see a lot of interior penetration by this d-line, but they are pretty good about getting their arms up for swats like this one by #58 DT Tafuna.
- :43 - By far the most sacks, hurries, and throwaways on my tally sheet come on big 3rd down blitzes like this one where they bring seven and #7 DE Fillinger goes unblocked. He doesn’t bring down the QB but the throw is clearly affected.
However, on an efficiency basis Utah’s per-play success rate against the pass is just average, with 134 successfully defended designed passing plays vs 121 failed ones, or 52.5%, which about the same as every opponent the Ducks have played except the Huskies. The problems I’m seeing in pass defense are the ones common to most highly aggressive defenses - if the pass rush doesn’t get home, the coverage can’t hold up that long. That’s exacerbated by their frequent blitzing, because they’re then even more shorthanded on the back end. I also have a pretty low rate of getting home when only rushing four, and by far their most effective pass rusher is an inside linebacker instead of one of the d-linemen, meaning they’re down one in coverage if they bring him.
Another problem arose last week - during a surprise 4th down touchdown run in the first quarter against Arizona, one of Utah’s starting corners, #23 CB Marks, unfortunately came up limping from a non-contact injury, and it appears he’ll be unavailable for some time. Marks was himself a replacement for #4 CB Broughton, who was injured early in the season. They’ve been playing freshman #16 CB Vaughn in his place, and while he has some experience this year I think it was clear that Arizona was attacking him with some success during the rest of that game — probably the biggest reason it was closer than anyone expected — and his film in previous games shows some freshman mistakes. As we discussed on the podcast, probably the biggest difference between this year’s defense and 2019’s is that rather than seniors who were about to go to the NFL, this secondary is almost entirely underclassmen, with the exceptions of senior #9 DB Davis playing the high safety and UW transfer #28 DB McKinney at strong safety.
Here’s a representative sample of Utah’s unsuccessful pass defenses:
- :00 - Both tight ends on this play have time to get 15 yards downfield before #0 LB Lloyed as the unblocked blitzer gets home, and both are wide open.
- :12 - Vaughn is beat by leverage here, with the high safety taking the inside route and leaving him isolated. The fade is open to the other side of the field but Tafuna has broken through the line and the QB doesn’t have time to set up for it, but he can hit this throw before the big tackle gets to him.
- :27 - The blitz means #1 LB Sewell (brother of Oregon’s Penei and Noah) has to hustle over to cover the slant; he overruns it and gives up a big play, but does make the tackle in pursuit.
- :36 - The QB steps up pretty calmly to avoid Sewell’s pass rush, and Vaughn has been drawn off his coverage into the flat in what I’m fairly sure is an assignment error for the freshman.
Curiously, I have very little data on how Utah defends screens and RPOs - none of their opponents that I reviewed used them very extensively. I had hoped to get some film on them during their matchup against UCLA since that offense usually has lots of interesting stuff in it, but the Bruins had to play a backup quarterback at the time and it was clear the offense was extremely simplified for his benefit. I have some data from the 2019 season suggesting that RPOs in particular give DC Scalley’s squad a lot of problems, but that’s two years old with an almost entirely different roster, and the most successful team at them that year was Oregon which was using a different offense and fairly different screen and RPO plays.
Utah’s worst quadrant of play from scrimmage is their rush defense, though that’s not saying much - it’s the only area in which they’re underwater but that’s just barely at 110 successfully defended designed rushes vs 111 failed ones, or 49.8% per-play success. On most plays I see a well coached and very physical front six attacking the offensive line and closing down gaps immediately. The key to their rush defense, as it was in 2019 when I last reviewed them, is the quick decision-making by the linebackers, who either pre-snap or instantly after make a read of the play and crash where they expect the play is going. The backers are both very good at it and it blows up a lot of runs before they even start. Some examples:
- :00 - One of the backers, #32 LB Reid, is over the slot man, with Lloyd and nickel #15 DB Mataele in run support. They immediately hit their gaps on reading the line’s first step and have guessed correctly for a good stop.
- :08 - Lloyd and Reid shut down both of the frontside gaps quickly, and Tafua cleans up from the backside when the ballcarrier tries to bounce away.
- :16 - This is a pretty common tactic for dealing with read plays - Fillinger is staying square and #9 DB Davis comes down very fast in case of a QB keep.
- :31 - Here’s a different variation of the defensive configuration where Sewell is playing on the line. He’s fast enough to reverse course when the QB keeps and help with the tackle.
Longtime readers will recall the vulnerability that creates, however - if the backers guess wrong or are misdirected, they leave open a running lane for big yardage. This year Utah is allowing 5.7 yards per carry outside of garbage time, with about 17% of designed runs going for 10+ yards, which is a pretty high explosive rushing figure. I’ve also noticed quite a few times the defense has difficulty getting lined up in time, both the DBs across the field and the linemen settling into their stances. Some examples:
- :00 - This was the most common way opposing offense got outside runs against Utah - press inside, get the backers to jump, then bend it out into the open grass vacated by the CB clearing out in man coverage.
- :08 - Cutbacks and counters work on the same logic.
- :25 - The other option is just to block well. There aren’t a lot of lines in the Pac-12 capable of that but when they do and the back has the right patience to wait for the hole before putting his foot in the ground, they’ve gotten big gains.
- :34 - In the last game the defense had a lot of problems getting lined up in time for the snap, I’m not sure why. Here they’re in man coverage in the red zone and not difficult to manipulate - both backers take off on the fake sweep and #8 CB Phillips (their best secondary player, in my opinion) has to carry the TE deep, so all the RG has to do is pull and kick out Tafau and the QB gets a big gain even after slipping in the backfield.