Inside the Gameplan: The Utes

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Tom Herman’s teams really seem to make the most of bowl games. It’s perhaps a testament to his culture that his players rarely fail to show up in games of any magnitude. His Houston Cougars beat Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State handily in 2015. The following year they were taken apart by San Diego State but without Herman as he was working to put together his Longhorn transition class. In year one in Austin, Herman’s Longhorns famously pounded Missouri and the head coach gloated with his team on the sideline. Last season they scored that big narrative win over the Georgia Bulldogs, who didn’t realize they were walking into a fistfight with a team that couldn’t be cowed or overpowered like their normal SEC East opponents. There’s a major edge to be had for teams that consistently show up to bowl games with purpose and focus.

This year is going to be a little more akin to the Missouri matchup. In Utah, Texas is getting a non-blueblood program that is a rising power in college football and hungry for big wins over the traditional big brands. USC and Oregon gave them their only losses this season. The latter defeat knocked Utah out of the playoff hunt and effectively marginalized their achievement this season in winning the Pac-12 South.

There’s a little extra intrigue in that Tom Herman scouted Utah’s defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley for the Texas DC vacancy, and in the recruiting battles these two programs have had. Texas poached Junior Angilau from Utah and nearly added Van Fillinger this season. They also recently picked off Texan Jaylan Ford who had previously been committed to the Utes. Utah recruits Texas very heavily and stole Fillinger from the Longhorns as well as flex RB Ty Jordan. They signed three other Texas HS players in the recent NSD1.

Utah is probably going to be coming in with their gloves up and looking to land a knockout, but for all their flaws Herman’s Longhorns tend to protect the brand in a game like this. We may end up with a pretty fun game, even if the stakes aren’t terribly high.

Ute football

Utah has been coached by Kyle Whittingham ever since Urban Meyer left for Florida. Whittingham was his defensive coordinator but had been at Utah for nearly a decade even before Meyer arrived. He’s a BYU grad who played linebacker in the NFL for Fritz Shurmur, one of the godfathers of the zone blitz. From Utah, where he started as a DL coach working with his father, Whittingham has overseen the development of a ton of coaches and developed a lineage that I like to jokingly refer to as the “Mormon mafia” coaching tree.

Unlike some of the other coaches down this lineage, as a former DL coach Whittingham has always preferred to play a four-down front and his units are always stocked with some bulked up Utah kids and lots of Polynesians. The current DL is entirely Polynesian and features a pair of 330-pound defensive tackles bookended by sturdy strongside end Mike Tafua to the field with weakside end Bradlee Anae on the boundary. They’re backed up by their own “rover” linebacker Devin Lloyd. They play some of the same “rover or WDE, who’s coming?” tricks as Todd Orlando and Anae had 12.5 sacks from that set-up this season while Lloyd added 5.5 more. They utilize the zone blitz quite often but it’s less of a focus than for the 2019 Longhorns and the Utes spent a fair amount of time just playing base defense in cover 1, relying on their DL (particularly Anae) to disrupt the passer.

The offense follows a similar formula with some massive interior OL like 6-4, 340 pound center Orlando Umana and 6-5, 325 pound right guard Nick Ford bookended by some quicker and lankier tackles. They run a lot of outside zone behind the tackles and some solid tight ends then mix in inside zone and power as well. Zack Moss is the feature back and got 219 carries that he turned into 1359 yards at 6.2 ypc with 15 rushing touchdowns. Over the years Whittingham has also embraced the spread and tactics like zone-read and RPOs, even hiring an Air Raid guy from FCS Eastern Washington, but their incorporation of those tactics are utilized to help them control the ball with the run game.

It’s a power-spread that has had a lot of success in getting the mix right. Dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huntley threw for 2897 yards at 9.4 ypa with 18 touchdowns to just four interceptions and turned 69 carries into 362 yards at 5.2 ypc with five rushing touchdowns. The lead receiver was tight end Brant Kuithe (Katy, Cinco Ranch), who had 31 catches for 572 yards and six touchdowns. Moss is the real focal point, but they mix in RPOs, play-action, and QB keepers to everyone else as effective constraints.

With Utah you should normally mention their special teams, which Whittingham has always nurtured with Snyder-like focus. They only ranked 72nd in special teams S&P+ this season though. They had freshman punter, a walk-on field goal kicker who’s longest FG was only 42 yards, a lot of fair catches, and a blocked punt against Oregon. Utah wants to beat you by running the football, winning the field position battle, and leaning on their defensive prowess. This season they had to lean into their effective offense and typically strong defense to make that formula work. Utah is essentially the TCU of the Pac-12.

Defending the Alamo

The 2019 Pac-12 championship game seemed like it would be a great set-up for the Utes to finally break through and secure that elusive conference crown. They were facing Mario Cristobal’s Oregon, which the former Alabama OL coach has tried to fashion as another power-spread team in the mold of Saban’s program. Consequently they often failed to make the most of NFL draft prospect Justin Herbert at quarterback save for doing what they needed to do in order to secure favorable numbers and angles for the senior OL and run game. With that sort of approach they seemed like easy fodder for the Utes who were going to play exactly the sort of game that Whittingham had in mind.

Utah’s gameplan involved playing a lot of man-free with strong safety Terrell Burgess shadowing the TE and free safety Julian Blackmon hanging out over the top. Oregon took them apart early with some option schemes that beat contain and got Herbert or quick pass option players running free on the edge after beating contain. Later they mixed in some man-beating route combinations and jumped out to a 20-0 lead at the half. In the next half their constant use of motion against Utah’s man coverage led to some runs breaking free, particularly 70 and 31-yard touchdown runs by CJ Verdell that made the score 30-15 and then 37-15 (the final score).

Tom Herman himself used a similar trick to beat Oregon’s man-free coverage in the national championship game back when he was at Ohio State. Receiver motion just before the snap forces late safety rotation which often erases the defense’s ability to get their safeties in position to help erase mistakes against the run game. If you’re chasing a receiver across a formation or trying to back pedal into your new position as the deep man it’s hard to take good angles to tackle the RB.

Interestingly enough, Utah’s other loss came from trying to lean on man coverage from their base 4-2-5 going up against Graham Harrell’s Air Raid at USC. The Trojans beat 1-on-1 coverage down the field over and over again in a 30-23 victory.

Texas’ takeaways from these games should be relatively obvious. The way to punish Utah’s 2019 preference for man coverage is with motion and zone-read schemes, often in conjunction, that force the Utes to scramble into position and remember how to play their option assignments from the new alignments they are thrust into.

For instance…

Utah will have watched enough film to know that when Texas puts Devin Duvernay in the boundary slot that you can squeeze the life from the Longhorn offense by playing man under and shading the sole deep safety to that side of the field. There could be some easy yardage from orbit motion screens to Duvernay when he runs to the wide side of the field from that alignment. Once Utah starts triggering hard in that direction Texas can run zone read back to the boundary and test whether the Utes left any overhang defenders on the boundary and whether they are option sound.

There’s lots of games like this that Texas can play in the option game, particularly if they’re willing to run Ehlinger 15 times or so. There’s really no reason they wouldn’t. The QB draw RPO game is another serious challenge:

Playing man-free can help with matchups against the four skill players but once the RB gets involved in the motion and flex game then the LBs no longer have a shield and have to leave the box and venture out into space.

Perhaps more to the point, when you’re facing a QB that runs like a fullback and will likely have a long leash to scramble and be involved in the run game that spells trouble. Man coverage can guarantee six in the box for the defense but if the QB is involved it becomes 6-on-6 with all the supporting players either dropping deep or turning their backs to play coverage. Ohio State got torched regularly in 2018 playing man-free against four-wide spread teams running QB draw or option schemes. They tried to slant and stunt their DL to attack blockers 1-on-1 but every time a runner broke free there was no one there to make the tackle. Utah is vulnerable to some similar issues.

Once you mix in Texas’ improving mesh passing game and ability to get Devin Duvernay open against man coverage or matched up on linebackers, this is a pretty tough one for Utah’s defense. If Collin Johnson is ready to go and beat the Ute cornerbacks on jump balls then you can go ahead and pencil in Texas for 30+ points.

On the other side of things, this matchup plays to Texas’ strengths even if they focus more on their four-down packages for Chris Ash’s benefit. You can expect them to mix nickel odd tite front looks with Joe Ossai at B-backer with some normal Over front looks with Ossai on the edge and opposite Roach or Bimage playing as a true DE. That said, Texas’ normal zone blitzes and their inside-backer auto-blitzes they often use against teams that want to run downhill are a bad matchup for the Ute offense.

The overall strategy should be to take away the easy RPOs and play-action lobs to the TE and force Huntley to read coverage and make plays down the field. Watching him against Oregon it’s rather amazing he hasn’t thrown more interceptions this season as he doesn’t see coverage well. His efficiency was probably due to the way they were able to protect him and emphasize the run game while banking on the defense to keep the game in reach. If you can beat blocks and get hats to the ball against Moss without falling for the sweeps and option read eye candy that Utah sprinkles in then there’s not much else to the Ute offense. Think the 2019 Sooners with a poor man’s Jalen Hurts running the show, no CeeDee Lamb, and without Lincoln Riley’s brilliant play-calling.

There’s an expectation coming into this game that Utah is going to ameliorate a disappointing season conclusion by beating down a mediocre Texas team that most won’t expect to really show up. If the Longhorns do show up and Herman has done any homework on Utah’s defense (and he has, for a few reasons) then the normal bowl/big game advantage of a physical Texas and a 12+ carry day from Sam Ehlinger facing a non-B12 opponent should offer the Utes a reality check and push the Longhorns to 8-5.

History major, football theorist.