Season-ending injuries to starters and major rotational players or projected backups at quarterback, running back, tight end, and wide receiver have significantly depleted Utah’s offense in 2023. Most have been out since the beginning of the season; JT and I discussed the history of them and gave a complete recitation on the podcast.
I’ve run controls on how the couple of unfortunate midseason injuries and the QB switching have affected the team and while I think they have some qualitative effects – particularly in regards to formations and borrowed personnel – ultimately the season-long trendlines in the per-play numbers remain the same from the beginning to the present moment. In the aggregate, the Utes have below a 44% efficiency rate in their FBS games outside garbage time (157 successes vs 201 failures, given the down & distance), gaining 5.4 adjusted YPP with about 11% of plays achieving explosive yardage.
These numbers stay the same regardless of which quarterback has been playing. The Utes have been trying out two, #16 QB Barnes and #13 QB N. Johnson, though in the last two games it’s been all Barnes and on the podcast JT said he expects that to remain the case on Saturday. Barnes brings up the per-play pass efficiency rate a couple percentage points when the sample is restricted to just his snaps, reflecting better accuracy than Johnson, but the yardage and explosiveness figures remain the same, as he tends not to push the ball as far downfield and so those more frequent completions gain fewer yards.
Utah is deeply underwater in passing efficiency on the season at 41% (62 successes vs 90 failures), or 43.5% for Barnes alone, gaining 6.4 adjusted YPA and with 13.5% of passes going for 15+ yards. With all of OC Ludwig’s favorite receiving targets — the tight ends — out with injury, the passing offense has turned to #17 WR Vele, who’s the tallest and most gifted receiver and the sole favored wideout in this offense for years, hot-and-cold deep threat #10 WR Parks, quick true freshman #0 WR Matthews who’s generously listed at 5’8”, and two-way player (in a league suddenly filled with them) #28 DB Vaki.
Here’s a representative sample of Barnes’ successful passing plays in recent games:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – While still a regular threat on intermediate routes, Vele’s reliable hands have much more often this year been used on short efficiency plays like this one, which leverage his speed advantage against a slower linebacker to get seven yards while at the same time presenting an easy completion for the QB.
- :07 – In the absence of tight ends, we’ve seen more complex motions like this one to get the safeties to rotate. Here the boundary and field safety have to spin up then down again and the latter doesn’t recover properly to catch the speedy Matthews.
- :24 – More significant pre-snap shifting, this one really stumps USC’s defense (not the toughest of tasks, to be sure) and they’re misaligned by the end of it; the backer loses Parks on the sweep into wheel and he scampers down the sideline for 22 yards, 21 of them after the catch.
- :39 – Here’s Vaki embarrassing the Trojans on a Texas route as the only well-coached safety on the field.
Deep shot passing has almost completely disappeared from this offense, with only two completions on 20+ air yard throws. There are a variety of factors involved in this, from the immediate injury situation to QB arm talent to what I consider to be long-term neglect of the wide receiver unit by this staff.
I also think that offensive line protections have been an issue in setting up for deeper throws. On the podcast, JT and I discussed OL coach Harding’s management of the line and what may be some injury situations there, although the staff has been even quieter than usual about these so it’s hard to say what’s going on exactly. They’ve been switching back and forth between a 4-star true freshman, #55 LT S. Fano, and a converted defensive lineman, #73 LT Togiai, on the left side. It’s difficult to tell whether injury or performance is a greater reason for the rotation, but neither is getting consistent developmental time in their first year at the position.
The both of us are fairly certain the Utes aren’t playing their preferred center and have been switching between two backups, #68 C Kump and #61 C Faaiu. Kump started the year but Faaiu has taken over in recent games, and JT thinks that’ll continue on Saturday (he believes that the true sophomore Faaiu may have been the primary backup to their top choice, #53 C Maea whom I had penciled in over the Summer but appears to be out hurt, and Faaiu has only recently become available). This has bumped a couple guys over – #52 RG Mokofisi has come off the bench and doesn’t grade out particularly well for me, and their best lineman, #78 RT Laumea, has had to switch from guard (where he projects for the NFL) to tackle. On the podcast we discussed how it’s affected blitz identification and how pass rush pickups have been a significant problem throughout the year.
Here are some representative examples of failed passing plays in recent games:
- :00 – Utah is keeping seven in protection against OSU’s four-man rush, sending just two into the pattern for Barnes to wind up on this deep shot to Parks. It’s just not there – the numbers advantage for coverage is too great in order to afford that protection and Parks, as JT put it, tends to disappear; more arm talent is necessary for this kind of contested catch.
- :15 – There’s nobody to throw to before the blitz gets home here, with poor communication leaving a wide gap and everybody but Laumea getting beat.
- :26 – Different LT and C now, but same communications problem – they’re blocking air and the rushers get straight through. This time there are several options to make the throw – the wheel for a big play, or the crosser for a quick catch — and I think some previous Utah QBs JT and I discussed might have improvised something Barnes doesn’t.
- :51 – Pressure with four here, and Barnes can’t find anyone downfield so he breaks the pocket and hits the back more out of desperation I think than anything else because the defense is set up to bring this down easily even if he hadn’t stumbled.
Even though Utah’s injury situation has extended to two of its running backs — including the one who I personally believe is their all-around most valuable, #2 RB Bernard — I think that they were in such a strong position with this unit that they’re still fine here. They retain powerful runner #1 RB Glover and the dynamic converted quarterback #3 RB Jackson, and backup #26 RB Vincent got basically as many carries last year as the other back they’ve lost for the season, #24 RB Curry (who’s never really produced commensurate with his 4-star LSU pedigree). The Utes have also pressed Vaki into service here as a ballcarrier, who’s shown a remarkable ability to make tacklers miss, and Barnes is a very tough runner himself.
Here’s a representative sample of successful rushing plays from recent games:
- :00 – The ILB is pretty late to figure this out, and the LT and LG are getting a good combo on the DT and driving him back, opening more than enough of a hole for Glover to power through. But #47 TE Suguturaga, at this point their only available blocking TE, isn’t controlling the OLB and he reaches into the lane to limit the play.
- :07 – Good press and bounce from Jackson, whose smooth lower body action betrays his history as a QB. It gets the entire line to pinch in and then he slips neatly through the C-gap.
- :22 – I would put this touchdown at something close to 100% effort on Vaki’s part, certainly the blocking’s not contributing much.
- :41 – It wouldn’t be a Ludwig offense if he weren’t having his only functional QB bail him out on a 3rd down keeper directly into the defensive line.
The Utes have called run plays on 57.5% of their non-garbage time snaps in 2023, which is up significantly compared to their previous seasons since Ludwig rejoined the team in 2019 when it’s hovered around 48% each year.
I think partially because of defenses suspecting a run is coming, as well as the running back and offensive line personnel situations, rushing effectiveness is down significantly compared to previous years. Also, as JT and I discussed on the podcast, lacking any truly capable and experienced blocking tight ends – the biggest is a defensive convert and new to the position, the other two are too skinny at this point — has kept Ludwig from being able to deploy his preferred multiple-TE rushing offense, and so the formations and rush playcalls look remarkably different at this point in the season.
This year Utah is below average in designed rushing efficiency at 46% (95 vs 111), with 4.8 adjusted YPC and under 10% of designed rushes gaining 10+ yards. All of those are steep falloffs compared to the 2022 figures – by 13 percentage points in efficiency, 0.7 in yardage, and 5 points in explosiveness. Some examples:
- :00 – This rush is a Ludwig staple but it’s got two of the blockers reversed from previous years, with Vele playside and an underweight (for the moment) backup TE slicing under to hit the corner. Vele’s not getting to the nickel with the power he needs to, the LT is blocking the wrong guy (his assignment is the backer), and the LG/C combo isn’t clearing out an undersized DT, so Glover doesn’t have a gap to run through.
- :17 – There are multiple whiffs to the playside of this gap scheme, and the RG is giving it away pre-snap almost falling backwards.
- :23 – The unblocked end has his shoulders completely turned here, this is clearly the incorrect option read and the QB should have kept it. Furthermore, pre-snap motion revealed this was zone with the CB staying put and the offense has no one to block him, so this play is doomed from the front- and the backside.
- :38 – This time they do have frontside blockers, but they fall down, and it’s still the incorrect read on the backside end.
In the aggregate, Utah has shown very good overall defensive stats this season. They have a little over a 57% defensive per-play success rate (185 successes vs 138 failures) which is well above average, and are allowing a pretty good 6.7 adjusted YPP, though with 18.5% of opponents’ plays going explosive.
There are two perturbations in the data worth noting. First, Utah’s opponents have chosen passing over rushing almost two-thirds of the time, and defending the pass from an efficiency standpoint is by far the Utes’ strongest quadrant of football. Second, over Utah’s six FBS games there is an extreme split in Utah’s defensive stats between their first three and their last three, with a sizeable falloff in all stats I track which persists for each game individually. Here are the numbers broken out:
On the podcast, JT and I discussed why this might be. It’s not a staff or scheme change, and they’ve actually gotten back from injury a couple of defensive ends in #7 DE Fillinger and #81 DE O’Toole since the bye week who likely make up for #0 DE L. Fano’s unavailability. They’ve had no other significant injury news on the defense until after the most recent game when we learned about the unfortunate season-ending injury to starter #20 LB Barton.
The only remaining explanation is simply that Utah played three pretty lousy offenses (or at least at the time, as anyone who watched Florida bumble its way across the field in the opener can attest) to open the year, and has gone up against less terrible offenses more recently. The fact that Chip Kelly’s UCLA with a 5-star QB counts as the former and Justin Wilcox’s Cal with a 2-star QB counts as the latter is a shocking fact to me, but I’ve watched both those teams, and it’s a fact all the same.
Rush defense is led by the pair of great tackles in the middle of Utah’s 4-3 defense (although they’re most often in a 4-2-5 because that’s what they switch to against 11-pers or lighter and this is the Pac-12), starters #58 DT Tafuna and #57 DT Tanuvasa. Like last year, they have a couple of backups in the interior but they don’t rotate nearly as often as other teams in comparable structures and they don’t grade out as well; those are #99 DT T. Fotu, #77 DT Pepa, and #95 DT Vimahi.
The two primary backers who had taken nearly every snap up until now were Barton and #21 LB Reid, with Stanford transfer #3 LB Damuni coming in when they’d switch to the 4-3. Barton had the best grades on my tally sheet, followed by Reid (although I noted some lateral footspeed issues), and then Damuni last but at least he seems to be playing better than when he was on the Farm when he like the rest of the Cardinal backers were just coached terribly. JT said that Damuni will now take over for Barton and #12 LB S. Fotu, who I’d seen back in 2020 before he left for his LDS mission over the last two years, will be the new third backer. I haven’t seen much of Fotu at all but JT didn’t seem very impressed; for my part I think this unit has had some very weird roster management issues going back for a decade and they’re always precarious on depth.
Adding to the rush defense is Utah’s box safety position, which has been capably played in recent years by a series of guys who are now all on the team together: #31 DB Ritchie (also back from a two-year mission), #8 DB Bishop, and Vaki. JT and I discussed how these guys are now distributed throughout the defense (and offense!) and may be moved around for this game; I’ve really liked Ritchie and Bishop in the past but JT and I both noted the former hasn’t rediscovered his 2020 form, and on my tally sheet the latter plays much more poorly as a deep safety than in the box (JT disagrees with me on this point).
Here’s a representative sample of successful rush defenses:
- :00 – Great job by the tackles and backers getting their hats outside the OL on this wide zone run, one of the few fronts I’ve seen consistently beat OSU’s very mobile line on this play.
- :07 – Again, I don’t see a single OSU lineman who’s winning a block here – despite giving up some big runs on misdirection plays, in a straight physical contest Utah’s front was simply the better unit in this game.
- :13 – Cal’s rushing offense was significantly above water in this game using different plays, but when they tried pushing Utah around it wasn’t happening. The interior is getting stoned without the DE pinching, so when the back bounces he gets off the RT’s block.
- :21 – Here the backup DTs are in and they’re something of a different story, but the ends are winning, and USC’s center just forgets to climb to the second level so Barton finishes the play.
Over all six FBS games, Utah’s rush defense is only slightly underwater at 49% (60 vs 62) and allowing 4.9 adjusted YPC, but they have a real issue giving up chunk yardage and explosive rushing with more than 17% of opponents’ runs gaining 10+ yards. That’s gotten worse in their last three games, in each of which it’s been over 25% (curiously the most rush-oriented opponent, Oregon State, had the lowest of those three). There’s a consistent set of vulnerabilities in terms of big runs to gap schemes, wide outside runs that exploit lateral speed issues in the front, and read option plays where there have been some scrape exchange problems, and in addition to some fatigue from potential depth issues I think it’s possible that recent opponents have figured out some things by watching film. Some examples:
- :00 – We’re now into the 4th quarter of a grueling game with the starters still in, and I believe I’m detecting signs of fatigue – Utah had shut down this exact play four previous times (and three closely related cousins out of a slightly different formation as well) earlier in the game but now OSU’s third-string back is gashing them for 11 yards, with the entire front kind of casually pushed aside.
- :13 – Cal ran this same RPO on three consecutive plays, with Utah picking a different poison each time. Here’s the last one, in which they’ve induced the QB to make the outside keep, but have no one on outside contain – both the end and box safety step inside on the back.
- :28 – Here Cal is in 12-pers, so Utah has in their third backer and Bishop out of the box on the hashes. Bishop has to get wide to force the play back inside, that’s proper, but because they’re missing his speed out of the box those backers are the ones who have to chase down the back. Even though Cal’s OL whiff on their second-level blocks, the lateral speed here isn’t adequate.
- :37 – Contrary to the fatigue or opponent quality theories, these gap schemes have just always been effective. This is the very first play of USC’s possession, but it wasn’t the last in which they simply cleaned out Utah’s front in man blocking for a big gain (though bizarrely the Trojans only called it twice in the second half).
The pass defense is spearheaded by an excellent pass rush, which is headlined by #83 DE Elliss who leads the country in sacks. O’Toole grades out pretty well also, though there’s a real falloff past those two in effectiveness on my tally sheet and as JT and I discussed on the podcast I don’t think the unit runs more than three deep of playable guys at this point. The defensive line is also well coached to get their hands up and swat the ball, with a higher rate of deflected passes per dropback than average in my experience.
I tally the Utes at 29% sacks, scrambles, or throwaways per dropback, and that high rate of pocket pressure and incompletions contributes to their championship-caliber 62% defensive success rate against the pass (125 vs 76) over all six FBS games, and this is the only stat to survive as above average when the dataset is restricted to just the last three games. So many incompletions also keeps their overall YPA allowed figure pretty decent at 7.8, although that’s bumped up half a yard in the last three games. Some examples:
- :00 – The blitz earns a quick throw under pressure short of the sticks, which #1 CB Battle eventually manages to bring down after going for a piggyback ride on a 5’7” receiver and getting some help from Bishop.
- :17 – Elliss and O’Toole are just whipping the tackles here, and the QB has nowhere to step up into because the RG lunges at Tanuvasa with a poorly set stance.
- :31 – Of course it rarely results in an interception, but the consistency with which I see these swats on film leads me to think it’s coached.
- :42 – The RPO here gets exactly what USC wants, the entire defense is cleared out for the slot man’s drag route, but the long developing play requires the pocket to hold up … and that’s not a safe bet with this line.
However, when passes do connect, either because the pocket has held up or the pass has gotten off quickly, opponents have been gaining explosive yardage against Utah’s secondary and backers in coverage consistently and from the beginning of the year. Every opponent except Baylor had at least an 18.5% rate of 15+ yard passes, and even the Bears’ woeful second-stringer of a QB got over 15%.
JT and I disagreed about this on the podcast pretty strongly and I respect his stance (he made an excellent point about ballhawking when they need it), but it’s my opinion that Utah’s secondary this year is quite vulnerable and I see frequent coverage busts, tackling problems, and bad angles on film in every game. Some examples:
- :00 – This appears to be a man assignment error in which #15 CB T. Johnson pursues the Z-receiver along with #5 CB Vaughn for some reason. Then Reid, who’s the robber, doesn’t know if he should stay put over the crosser or pursue the slot man Johnson abandoned, but at least he has inside leverage against the receiver’s (incorrect) choice to bend inside instead of go down the sideline, and yet Reid still gets juked.
- :18 – Elliss isn’t beating the RT here and so there is no pressure even with six pass rushers, and the QB gets an easy comeback against Battle despite the long throw from the far hash.
- :34 – No pressure, the ILBs are totally suckered by play action even though the OL is obviously pass blocking, and there’s a clear throwing lane. Johnson is straight cooked off the line, and Vaki, playing back as a the single high safety which in my opinion is out of position for him, is late to the play.
- :48 – This quick hitch should get only a minimal gain, but #4 CB Broughton misses the tackle, and then the receiver bounces off Vaughn too while Barton stares in disbelief that this is getting a 1st down.