Special thanks to Greg West of No Truck Stops for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss Utah’s roster. LISTEN HERE
The remarkable thing about Utah’s passing offense is that since the end of 2021 they keep losing productive pass-catchers – both over the offseason and to mid-season injuries – without really replacing them, instead doubling down on the couple of guys that #7 QB Rising appears to trust most. On the podcast, Greg and I discussed the change in the Utes’ offense compared to 2021 when it seemed a lot more multifaceted than it is at this point.
Yet despite that increasing concentration on a few players – about two-thirds of all pass targets outside garbage time go to #86 TE Kincaid, #17 WR Vele, or checkdowns to #2 RB Bernard – the Utah passing offense remains almost exactly as efficient as it was at this point last year. Against FBS opponents with Rising playing, they have 130 successful designed passing plays vs 110 failures, or about 54% per-play efficiency. They’re getting about 7.3 adjusted YPA and 18% of passing plays gain 15+ yards. All of those numbers are almost identical to 2021’s after week 11, when they had more than double the number of viable pass targets. They’re particularly effective on 3rd & mediums, when they throw about 74% of the time and convert about 76% of those passes, which are both significantly higher than the Power-5 norm.
Here’s a representative sample of successful passing plays:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – The defense is in man and motioning the back out draws the ILB out of underneath coverage on this slant. Vele drags a couple DBs into the endzone.
- :17 – This is the most common play-action look - there’s only two receivers in the pattern, with both TEs blocking against eight in the box. Vele has a great break off the stutter and constantly beats DBs like this, and is long enough to catch high passes over the backers.
- :39 – Kincaid has been used mostly on short stuff like this both before and after his injuries in week 9. He’s got great hands and knows how to break poor tackles.
- :47 – I don’t really understand why more defenses don’t park a defender just on Kincaid for hitches like this, is most of his inventory and Rising prefers this throw to the wide open touchdown to #21 WR Enis down the sideline.
On the podcast, Greg and I discussed some of the telegraphing of Utah’s offense this season. I think part of it is how few formations this offense chooses to operate out of, and how much they communicate the playcall based on how many tight ends are in and whether the QB is under center or in the shotgun. This chart shows how often the Utes call a run play in each configuration:
But I think the larger part of it when it comes to the passing offense is, as Greg put it on the podcast, “Rising’s tunnel vision.” Kincaid and Vele – interestingly, neither were rated by recruiting services out of high school – seem to be the dynamic playmakers here, but it’s tough to evaluate any of the other receivers on the field since they just get so few targets even when the primary guy is well covered. That results in a fairly high incompletion rate when throwing to those two, and I think explains the discrepancy between a high explosive play rate and a mediocre yards per play average.
Here’s a representative sample of failed passing plays:
- :00 – Kincaid is triple covered here, while Vele is wide open on the crosser for a likely touchdown.
- :11 – More triple coverage on Kincaid on this play, so Rising looks for Vele instead who just has a single defender draped on him. Meanwhile #4 TE McLain is wide open in the flat for an easy conversion.
- :36 – Here’s a throw to #10 WR M. Parks, who’s gotten the most WR targets outside Vele in the second half of the season. This is the first game after Rising returned from missing week 9, I don’t think he’s in full control of his throw yet and it’s behind the receiver.
- :45 – This was the next throw Rising attempted after being picked off in the endzone trying to force it to Kincaid in coverage.
Conversely, Utah’s running back room seems to have diversified. For most of these last two seasons, OC Ludwig has gone to Rising in clutch situations to run the ball, but after missing the week 9 game against Wazzu he’s had no designed runs at all (though he has scrambled effectively a few times). In that absence, they’ve expanded beyond the two primary backs, Bernard and #9 RB Thomas, to freshman #1 RB Glover, converted QB #3 RB Jackson, and wildcat #13 QB N. Johnson.
Thomas remains the main back, though he’s missed some time lately for curious reasons we touched on during the podcast, and the rest of the room fit different situations and have different relative strengths. Bernard is the best pass-catcher and blocker while having the lowest rush success rate, and his presence often signals a pass-heavy series. Jackson has the highest rush success (though on a limited sample), but his long build really limits his effectiveness as a pass blocker, while Glover is rarely in during passing plays at all. Greg thinks Johnson is the future starting QB at Utah and hopes he’ll take over fulltime if Rising isn’t 100%.
In terms of efficiency, Utah has a higher per-play success rate on designed runs than they did at this point last year: 133 successes vs 94 failures, or 58.5%, which is up more than three percentage points through week 11 of 2021. However, I think much of that can be explained by this season’s generally weaker rush defenses in the Pac-12 (plus San Diego St, whom they played both years). Their last two opponents, Arizona and Stanford, have some of the worst rush defenses on record, and if Utah’s 65% rush success against those two is excluded from the sample then the success rate falls back to 2021 levels.
Here’s a representative sample of rush successes:
- :00 – This blocking scheme is the most effective one Utah runs on my tally sheet, and why they like having two TEs. The line washes most of the defense, with one TE taking the backside edge and the other slicing under to hit the playside one.
- :11 – Here’s Thomas’ best asset by far as a back: a quick change of direction to cut back inside just after the defense commits to going outside on the blocks to run untouched for six yards or so.
- :24 – When the back needs to bounce as Glover does here, it’s almost always to the strong side.
- :34 – Pretty simple running here but representative of Utah’s hammering style against weak Pac-12 rush defenses.
While rush efficiency has been pretty reliable for Utah this year, yardage and explosiveness have regressed a bit since last year. Against FBS opponents and excluding the missing-personnel game against Wazzu, they’re averaging 5.3 adjusted YPC with about 14% of designed runs gaining 10+ yards, which are somewhat middling numbers. The Utes are down a full yard in the average and four and a half points in explosiveness compared to this point in 2021.
I think this running back room is pretty good and I see a lot of fight for yards after contact, so instead I attribute this falloff to the general narrowing and formational predictability of this offense discussed above and on the podcast, combined with some challenges replacing injured blockers in the offensive line and tight end rooms. Losing #80 TE Kuithe after the first quarter in week 4 to an ACL injury, and Kincaid I think not being 100% since a couple of hard hits in week 9, has made some of their heavier run looks less viable, and they’ve had to play five different linemen at the center and right guard spots (most recently going with a couple of freshmen). Mostly what I’m seeing is backs having to fight through stacked boxes that these blockers are having increased trouble clearing out. Some examples:
- :00 – Gap schemes are pretty far underwater in terms of effectiveness this year for Utah, I just think this is too complex for this line to execute, especially with the backups in at the interior.
- :06 – Only OC Ludwig could tell you why running on 2nd & 17 with an eight-yard runway behind this offensive line is a good idea.
- :13 – I’ve seen this several times, the line is lunging forward like they’re blocking a QB sneak on 1st & 10, and predictably all wind up on the ground. The defense just runs into the backfield for a TFL.
- :20 – Here one of the backup centers is losing to a Stanford d-lineman, the LT isn’t coming off his combo to help with the backer, and backup #87 TE Yassmin can’t decide which to block.
The final interesting observation about the Utes’ offense in 2022 is their frequent slow starts, followed by becoming increasingly unstoppable through later possessions. Despite being one of the overall most efficient Pac-12 offenses, they have the worst 1st-quarter success rates (combining run and pass) of any team I’ve studied this year, under 47%. However, they make an incredible leap to nearly 59% in the 2nd quarter, almost a 12-point jump, and follow that with another five-point jump to 64% in the 3rd quarter.
The only Pac-12 team to beat Utah this year, UCLA, did so by grabbing an 11-point lead halfway through the 2nd quarter and then keeping the Utes at arm’s length the rest of the game. In their most recent game against Stanford, the final 42-7 score belied a 14-7 halftime lead, with three of Utah’s first five possessions coming up empty and the two scoring drives requiring three 4th-down conversions, followed by four consecutive (and almost effortless) touchdowns starting in the 3rd quarter.
Greg started off the podcast talking about the decline in Utah’s defensive performance since last season, going so far as to say, “I have never been more frustrated watching Utah football than I was during the UCLA game.” I’ve noted a decline in all figures I track from charting compared to last year’s team at this point in efficiency, yardage, and explosiveness allowed in both run and pass defense, though against pass-happy Pac-12 teams (and with a fortuitous rainstorm against Arizona) they’ve still held up pretty well through the air.
I think personnel in the defensive front has a lot to do with it. After some significant losses at the end of 2021 — including both starting linebackers to the NFL – there’s just not much rotation here, with only five guys getting any meaningful reps in the four DT and LB spots. I think that results in fatigue and a noticeable falloff quarter-to-quarter in defensive effectiveness – there’s a four percentage point drop from the 2nd to 3rd, then a total collapse in the 4th to just a 31% defensive success rate.
The Utes do have a full four-man rotation for the two DE spots, but with the unfortunate loss of #7 DE Fillinger they’re simply not generating any pass rush when rushing four. They seemed to realize this at halftime in week 7 against USC and have massively increased their blitz rate since then, to the point where they blitz on virtually every obvious passing down over the last three and a half games.
The most significant area of defensive decline has been in rush defense. Against FBS opponents prior to garbage time, Utah has successfully defended 67 designed runs vs 90 failures, or 42.5%. They’re allowing 6.2 adjusted YPC and nearly 22% of opponent runs gain 10+ yards. These are substantially below average numbers for a Power-5 team, and a fall of eight percentage points in efficiency, 1.2 yards in the per-carry average, and nearly six points in explosiveness compared to Utah’s defense at this point last year.
A couple of those issues are schematic, in particular QB draws and read-option keeps, but mostly I’m just seeing backers who are overly aggressive and not as talented as last years’, and a d-line that can be blocked fairly effectively by better o-lines. Even excluding their three toughest performances (against Florida, UCLA, and USC), the rush defense efficiency still doesn’t climb above water, and excluding their three best it falls to just 37%. That speaks to something structural, and since the scheme hasn’t changed under DC Scalley for the better part of a decade it comes down to personnel changes, in my opinion.
- :00 – This starts as an outside run and both DTs get outside leverage, so it’s #21 LB K. Reid’s job to stay inside on the cutback. He doesn’t, and there’s a huge gap to run into.
- :13 – Note how the DE doesn’t set the edge here but rather goes inside, that’s because this scheme has the box safety or ILB play contain. The former gets blocked by a WR (almost a crackback) and the latter just whiffs.
- :30 – Good penetration here, but #3 LB Diabate doesn’t get outside leverage on the LG and so the back can cut outside of him and run away from his help, Reid and the box safety.
- :42 – Kind of basic but by far the most common kind of inside run against this defense, effectively combo’ing the DTs and then really only one of the backers needs to get blocked because the other will have run his way out of the play. The refs ignore the false start here, possibly distracted by someone shooting lasers onto the field.
There are a few interesting notes from the successful rush defenses. First is that I think they have a couple of very good players for this scheme, whom we discussed on the podcast: #77 DT Pepa and box safety #8 DB Bishop, and they really pop on the rush defense film. Second is that the linebackers, when they guess correctly, can be very effective when they’re aggressively attacking the run – motor and athleticism isn’t a problem for these guys. Some examples:
- :00 – The defensive line is just winning their blocks here, no real push from this offensive line since there’s no fun schematics on this play.
- :08 – This might be the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen Bishop do, and it’s not a short list. He jumpcuts the left guard and makes an ankle tackle on the back before he gets more than a yard. The rest of the front has been defeated and the DB coming to make this play has since been benched for ineffectiveness so this possibly saved a TD.
- :15 – I really don’t understand why Pepa isn’t starting, he grades out so much better than everyone else in the front on my tally sheet. Greg suggested it had something to do with his size but in my opinion that’s a feature, not a bug.
- :21 – This is the most common way I’ve seen Scalley’s LBs play the run over years of watching his film – aggressively guessing and firing off immediately. When they’re right, they shut plays down cold.
The per-play success rate against the pass has held relatively steady compared to last year: 122 successes of designed passing plays vs 100 failures, or 55%. I think Utah has one of the best corners in the Pac-12, #1 CB Phillips, and bizarrely opponents keep trying to throw against him (Greg speculates this is because he’s a little shorter than usual for an outside corner but he more than makes up for it). I also think that the recognition that their pass rush needs help from blitzing was a smart adaptation and helped them beat USC’s weirdly vanilla second-half offense and caused Wazzu to make some really poor playcalling choices. Some examples:
- :00 – This was the first time Utah really committed to blitzing on every passing down, which they pretty much haven’t stopped doing since. They get pressure under three seconds and the QB gets rid of it.
- :19 – I don’t really understand why Wazzu has their extra protection aligned to the non-overload side. Predictably, the blitz results in a sack.
- :39 – It’s 3rd and short, so run or pass Utah’s bringing everybody. Nice coverage by Phillips.
- :47 – The interesting thing about some of Utah’s blitzes is that they’re fine dropping out d-linemen into coverage to rush DBs, and they also keep some extra guys at depth to watch the QB. It puts a lot of strain on the secondary but they’ve calculated it’s worth it.
However, Utah’s pass defense is giving up explosive passes at a much higher rate than in the past: nearly 21% of opponents’ passing plays gain 15+ yards, and the Utes are allowing 8.9 adjusted YPA. Those are pretty big dips from this point last year, more than eight percentage points in explosiveness and 2.2 yards per attempt allowed. Since they’ve gone to a blitz-heavy strategy they’ve been very boom-or-bust, with a lot of sacks but a lot of pressure put on the secondary (and occasionally one of the front drops out for a DB to blitz) that outside of Phillips and Bishop I’m not as sold on as Greg is. Some examples:
- :00 – It’s 7-man protection against this blitz, which holds up long enough to get the pass off to a wide open receiver on the side of the field Phillips isn’t covering.
- :19 – Here’s what the pass rush virtually always looks like when only bringing four – all the pocket time the QB could possibly want. Utah’s zone coverage rules don’t allow DBs to cross midfield so super-long developing drag routes like this are guaranteed to be wide open, and USC hit several of them for this reason.
- :34 – Fairly familiar by now, rushing four gives the QB time for a deep throw, and since it’s not Phillips in coverage the receiver has a much better chance of being open.
- :46 – USC and Wazzu weren’t clever enough to figure this out, but Arizona was – the solution to blitzing is this nice little Texas route, which goes big because the safety overruns it and then the rest of the secondary has a hard time tackling.