Utah had a rough start to Pac-12 play. After scoring just seven points at home to UW, they lost to WSU the following week to start 0-2 in conference. In a season where the Utes were the clear favorite to claim their first South title, prospects were bleak. But then they rattled off four straight victories, and have since won seven of eight overall. They’ve scored at least 30 points in each victory, including over 40 in four of seven.
Then just when things were looking up, they lost both QB Tyler Huntley and RB Zack Moss to injury for the season. That was over the course of the Arizona State and Oregon games at the beginning of November, but the offense definitely didn’t fall off a cliff. They adjusted, scoring 32, 35, and 30 points in their last three games since scoring just 20 at Arizona State on November 3rd.
Let’s take a closer look at how Utah’s offense has evolved and what kind of attack they will bring to Santa Clara on Friday night.
Utah’s four-game offensive explosion
Is it the coaching, the execution, or the opponent? That’s what every fanbase asks itself when their team starts hitting its ceiling. For Utah, after disappointing losses to UW and WSU, the offense had just done the following:
- 40 points, 421 total yards vs Stanford
- 42 points, 495 total yards vs Arizona
- 41 points, 541 total yards vs USC
- 41 points, 470 total yards vs UCLA
Stanford has a below average defense, Arizona’s is below average at best, and the LA schools are a mess this year. So there’s that. But, talk to any Ute fan and they’ll tell you two things started happening during that four-game run: receivers stopped dropping passes and OC Troy Taylor simplified the offense and playcalling. If you play around with the passing chart thingy (technical term) below, you’ll find that Huntley began targeting receivers farther downfield during the Stanford and Arizona games than he had previously done in the season. It’s only a yard or two difference, but it was a sign of a maturing passing game, with receivers getting the proper depth on their routes to get the necessary successful yardage on each down.
The Utes were flying high. They were still a controlled, downhill, run-first team lead by RB Zack Moss, but Tyler Huntley began showing the promise of his sophomore season, one also hampered with injury problems. This is still not a QB-driven offense, but dynamic quarterback play can make an offense truly great and the Utes hoped that was where they were heading. Receivers like Demari Simpkins and Samson Nacua (60 total yards between them vs UW in week 3) had some of their most productive stretches of the season.
Then the Arizona State game happened; Utah turned it over three times and could only muster 325 yards and 20 points in a three-score loss. Neither Huntley, nor Jason Shelley who replaced him after his injury, were effective passing. Zack Moss, however, was his usual self with 128 yards and a TD on just 18 carries. He is now also out for the season and hasn’t played since the loss to Arizona State.
A new backfield and a new favorite formation
It shouldn’t be too hard to get accustomed to Ute QB Jason Shelley, because he should remind you of Tyler Huntley. He’s a few inches shorter than Huntley, but has a similar game and can effectively use his legs to buy time. Against Oregon, he executed a nice Russell Wilson-esque backspin out of a collapsing pocket (the kind Jake Browning unsuccessfully tried too many times last season), rolled to his right, and found his receiver deep downfield. He was a bit of a surprise during spring and fall camp and won the backup job over incoming blue chip freshman Jack Tuttle, who has since transferred. Shelley’s play in his first two starts against Utah and Colorado was okay: 483 yards and two TDs, with two red zone rushing TDs against Oregon. However, he only completed 53% of his passes. He was accurate against BYU last week, but only passed for 5 yards per attempt.
Shelley’s new partner in crime is RB Armand Shyne, who has taken over for the injured Moss. He had a strong first game against Oregon with 26 carries for 174 yards, but no TDs; Utah executed some nice fakes in the red zone to let Shelley more or less walk it in from short yardage. Like most Utah RBs, Shyne is a powerful back with more speed and agility than you’d expect for a 210-pounder. He’s got solid vision to find a crease and likes to lower his shoulder to bounce off and run through would-be tacklers. Despite those attributes, he was stymied the past two weeks against BYU and Colorado, barely getting over 3 yards per carry.
This new duo running the Utah offense isn’t the only change, however. More and more as the season wears on, Utah has shown a preference for this formation:
Most of this setup is pretty normal for a college offense these days: QB in shotgun, with a running back to his side, and two receivers split wide. However, instead of putting the TEs on the line of scrimmage, they both line up in the backfield in an H-back type of role. This puts them in a strong position not only to help in pass protection to pick up blitzes and block on downhill running plays, but also to sneak out of the formation for passes downfield. Essentially, the TEs running routes out of the backfield occupy the linebackers and DBs on the edges, opening up some more space in the middle of the field for easy completions. They have gone to this formation and concept more in recent weeks to ease the pressure on Jason Shelley. For a team that does not spread you out in the pass game, this gives them more diversity and options through the air.
It is no surprise, then, to see a player like TE Cole Fotheringham have his most productive three-game stretch of the season. After having seven total catches on the season, he’s had eight grabs for 123 yards in his last three games. Brant Kuithe, a smaller TE at 6-2, has been a beneficiary as well, having his second best game of the season three weeks ago against Oregon.
What to expect
Has Utah’s offense ever really given Washington problems? If Utah was fully healthy coming into this game, I would give them a real chance. It’s still a championship game but it’s hard to imagine a backup QB and running back having success against a Washington defense that only allows 120 rushing yards a game and less than 9 yards per completion (#1 in the country).
There is still WR Britain Covey to deal with, who Utah will go to consistently in a variety of ways because he is sure-handed and so good at finding space. The 5-9 all-purpose Covey only has 1 TD overall this year but has more than double the receptions of the next leading WR on his team and more than 1.5x the yards. Washington will no doubt look to give him the same treatment they did in Salt Lake City when they first met: hit him early, hard, and often. Washington’s DBs should be able to contain the rest of the passing game, especially against the redshirt freshman Shelley. Underneath, the linebackers will need to cover the TEs coming out of the backfield—this will be a challenge because they also must respect the power run game of Utah. If they are caught stepping up too much, Shelley will easily dump balls right over their heads.
But Utah is a run-first team rated 20th in rushing S&P+, and that is what they are going to do. Going into this game without Zack Moss will be tough for Utah, and I like the Husky defense to bottle up Armand Shyne. Freshman T.J. Green actually had better games than Shyne the last two weeks and it will be interesting to see his usage if Shyne isn’t getting yards. I imagine they will want to avoid passing at all costs, but when they are forced to throw it could be trouble. Shelley has shown some ability to deal with a pass rush, but Utah’s sack rate is 95th in the country. At the same time the Huskies, with the emergence of Joe Tryon and continued great play by Levi Onwuzurike, are just starting to get the pass rush humming.
I think Washington’s “magic number” is 20: Utah won’t score more than that, so if UW scores 21 or more, I believe they will win.
How many points will Utah score in the Pac-12 Championship?
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36 or more