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Utah Preview: Offense

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The age old question remains: Is Travis Wilson actually a good quarterback?

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The no. 13 Utah Utes roll into Husky Stadium on Saturday sporting a 7-1 overall record, and a 4-1 record in conference play.  Their week 1 victory against Michigan looks better every week, and even though they only put 24 on them, Michigan's defense has been arguably the best in the country this year.  Their only loss on the season has come at the hands of USC, where the suddenly resurgent Trojans gashed the Utah defense for 42 points.  Many pointed to this game as proof that Travis Wilson was not a top level Pac-12 QB, that he's just average.  I'll examine that more below, but he commands a pretty solid Utah offense.  Where it matters most, points scored, Utah ranks #40 nationally scoring 33.8 a game.  They convert about 41% of their 3rd downs (for comparison, Washington converts about 35%) and a whopping 96% of their red zone attempts.

What really jumps out at me is the disparity between their total offense, and scoring offense numbers.  Looking at Pac-12 games only, they're the 5th best scoring offense, but 9th best total offense.  To me, that screams efficiency, and great coaching, which doesn't surprise coming from a Kyle Whittingham team.  Let's take a closer look at the offense and see just who makes this offense tick.

Quarterback

QB Travis Wilson (SR, 6-7, 233)

Travis Wilson is freakishly tall for a quarterback.  Just had to get that out of the way.  Now, similar to the above disparity in total vs scoring offense, there are a few interesting individual stats when you examine Wilson's season (again, vs Pac-12 opponents only).  Aside from Kevin Hogan who is the clear #1 in pass efficiency, there's little difference between #2, and Wilson, who sits at #4 in the conference.  Basically, he's very efficient.  However, he drops down a bit in passing yards per game, to #7.  Nothing spectacular, but again this points to efficiency at the position.  One stat that jumped out was average yards per play, among all positions.  In just Pac-12 games, he's #12 in the conference, with 6.7 yards per play.  Among just quarterbacks, he's #5, behind names like Hogan, Kessler, and Rosen.  He's also very accurate completing over 65% of his passes, but, he can throw some interceptions.  Against Pac-12 teams he's thrown 6 interceptions, which is more than you'd like from your senior QB.  So, what do all these numbers mean?  Hard to say, other than Travis Wilson is pretty good, but not great.  He's definitely in the top half of the conference, maybe even top third, and one of the better QBs Washington will face this year.

Running Backs

RB Devontae Booker (SR, 5-11, 213) RB Joseph Williams (JR, 5-11, 200)

Booker is the star of the Utah offense.  He's a big, bruising running back who keeps this offense humming along.  With him they've averaged 176 yards per game on the ground against Pac-12 teams.  With 9 TDs, he's an offensive weapon in every sense and for such a bruiser he shows pretty good finesse catching the ball and rumbling to the endzone.  He's only behind Royce Freeman and Christian McCaffrey (decent company, I think) in rushing yards per game, and is second is rushing attempts.  He's the type of player coaches can give 30+ carries to a game and trust him to get yards, and not fumble.  So far, he's done that quite well.  The 2014 All-Pac 12 selection will likely break the 1000 yard rushing mark on the season this Saturday, as he already has 966 yards to his name this season.  Behind Booker is junior Joseph Williams, a JUCO transfer.  He's rushed for a whole 41 yards this season and doesn't expect to be a factor this game.  The top two rushers behind Booker are QBs, so don't expect anyone but Devontae to tote the rock.

Receivers/Tight Ends

WR Kenneth Scott (SR, 6-3, 208), ATH Britain Covey (FR, 5-9, 165), WR Tyrone Smith (FR, 6-4, 188), TE Harrison Handley (SO, 6-5, 245)

The biggest play maker from this group has been freshman Britain Covey.  Small in stature, he can make big plays, and has a 66 yard TD to his name this year.  He leads all receivers in yards (381), TDs (4), and receptions (32). Oddly enough, he is actually tied with Booker for the team lead with 32 receptions.  He had his breakout game against USC with 2 TDs (including that 66 yarder) and 129 yards on seven catches - just a huge game.  He had a really nice game against Michigan's defense in Week 1, coming up with 5 catches for 58 yards, including a 20 yarder.  The true freshman from Provo is one of the Pac-12's best first year players and even has a punt return TD to his name.  He played QB in high school and has really found a home at slot receiver in the Utah offense.  Random Fun Fact: His grandfather, Stephen Covey, authored the famous bestseller "7 Habits of Highly Effective People." Kenneth Scott is a nice complement outside, and is the deep threat to Covey's short/intermediate game, averaging about a yard more per catch than his shorter counterpart.  Freshman Tyrone Smith rounds out this group with 12 catches for 118 yards on the year.

Offensive Line

LT Sam Tevi (JR, 6-5, 300), LG Isaac Asiata (JR, 6-4, 315), C Siaosi Aiono (SR, 6-2, 310) RG Salesi Uhatafe (S), 6-4, 315), RT JJ Dielman (JR, 6-4, 300)

Utah averages a healthy 4.4 yards per rush this season, good for 60th in the country.  Not eye popping but that means the OL is doing their job run blocking.  It's hard to say if Utah's 11 sacks given up on the season is because of a heavy run first offense, or the OL's dominance in pass protection.  Giving up less than 1.4 sacks per game is a metric to be proud of, and the truth behind that is likely a combination of the style of offense and the OL's experience. Considering LT Sam Tevi is a converted defensive tackle from 2013, that is pretty solid.  Siaosi Aiono was moved to center last year, and has found a home there.  Originally beginning at RT, he's an all conference candidate this year, and on the Rimington Award watch list for his play the last two years anchoring the Utah offensive line.  Utah's offensive line isn't quite dominant but they are very physical and pave the way for Devontae Booker to pound the rock.

Final Thoughts

This offense really fits the identity of the team.  They're physical, and they run the ball.  With Devontae Booker they can really wear teams down, but I feel lack big time play makers at other spots.  That said, if it was easy to just key on Booker and shut down this offense, teams would have no problem doing that.  I want to go back to their red zone conversion rate - they've only missed one scoring chance all season inside the 20s.  On 27 attempts, they've scored 26 times (18 TDs, 8 FGs).  This makes the offense very effective, and very potent.  Utah plays stellar special teams, so with good field position, and a couple decent plays they can be in the red zone, where clearly they've shown they can score.  On the other hand, 27 red zone trips is on the low end for a team with such a high conversion rate.  But when they're there, they score, and that's what matters.  Combined with their fantastic defense and special teams, it's easy to see how this offense fits in the culture of the team and has helped them to a 7-1 record.