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Opponent Offense Preview: Utah Utes

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Is Utah any good on offense? An age old question to be sure.

NCAA Football: Weber State at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Did you hear? Utah has an offensive coordinator entering his second year at the program. I know, I could hardly believe it myself. After setting records and lighting up Pac-12 defenses as the offensive coordinator at FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington, Troy Taylor took the OC gig at Utah in 2017.

When he arrived at Utah he was the ninth OC in ten years; the fact he enters his second year at the helm is rare continuity at the position. Add in the fact that Utah has only finished once in the top 50 of offensive S&P+ since joining the conference (they were 55th last season), fully implementing and then committing to an offensive philosophy is probably the right move.

You may also remember the name Troy Taylor from his days coaching Folsom High School, where he helped Jake Browning set the all-time HS passing touchdown record.

Troy Taylor and Jake Browning, Folsom HS

Let’s get into it.

The basics

The Troy Taylor OffenseTM is at its core the spread passing attack from Texas Tech that we’ve gotten know more recently from Mike Leach’s Washington State teams. Taylor makes things as simple as possible for the QB so he can make quick reads and find the open receiver. Here he is explaining one of their base plays:

He uses intelligent receivers who know how to find and exploit space, combined with creative formations to maximize this space. Throw in some RPOs, power running, and up-tempo, and you have an offense that is efficient and capable of beating teams in multiple ways.

It’s been called the “iPhone Offense” at times because from the perspective of the operator or a third party observer, it’s very simple and intuitive. However, there is loads of complexity beneath that surface that goes into making the offense appear simple and approachable on the surface.

Through the air

Utah’s pass attack has been pretty up and down through two games this season. On the one hand, you have a player like WR Britain Covey picking up right where he left off coming back from his LDS mission, and looks to be arguably the best slot possession receiver in the conference. He’s only 5-9 and 170 pounds, but like all the best receivers, he does two things extremely well: get open, and catch the ball.

Then, you have QB Tyler Huntley through two games completing over 63% of his passes, for close to 600 yards and 4 TDs. Doesn’t sound so bad.

But, you also have six sacks given up last week against Northern Illinois, and the general offensive ineptitude shown by the Utes in that game. Receivers are not getting good enough separation, and when they do, they are dropping passes. The four returning starters on OL have not played as well as expected, and combined with Huntley’s propensity to hold onto the ball too long, this means he’s taking too many sacks.

Outside of Covey, with his 15 catches for 200 yards, WR Siaosi Mariner can be dangerous as well with his 6-2 frame. Freshman Jaylen Dixon is small at only 5-9 but has shown explosive ability with 90 yards on just three catches.

This can be a very efficient passing attack when it works. There are some questions about explosiveness, but they were incredibly dangerous on passing downs in 2017, ranking 20th in passing down S&P+. What that basically means, is they were incredibly successful at getting the necessary yardage through the air when it’s 2nd or 3rd and long. With a possession player like Covey back in the fold, this trend could continue. The other weapons outside are Samson Nacua and Demari Simpkins who are off to a slow start this year, but finished last year very hot.

Utah struggled last season with similar issues and Huntley was supposedly not that great...until he came into Husky Stadium and threw for 293 yards and two TDs, with over 10 yards per attempt.

On the ground

Before Taylor was brought in to inject some life into Utah’s offense, the Utes were a decidedly ground-and-pound team. While Taylor’s spread concepts are firmly part of the philosophy, HC Kyle Whittingham makes sure the Utes are first a physical run team. On the ground, it all starts with Zach Moss, the 5-10, 215 pound junior. Last season he ran for 1,100 yards and 10 TDs, but has had a slower start to this season. While he ran for 150 yards against mighty Weber State, he struggled last week, along with the rest of the offense, managing only 66 yards. However, the perception is that Moss is still one of Utah’s most dangerous weapons and it’s the pieces around him that are failing.

Like the pass game, there’s a lot to like efficiency- and success-wise, but not a ton of explosiveness. Like a typical smart, Whittingham-coached team, Moss takes the yards that are there and gets 1st downs. He was excellent at this last year where Utah ranked 19th in opportunity rate—meaning, does the running back get the yards that the OL blocks for him? With Moss, the answer is yes. No one else gets significant carries outside of Moss, but it is worth noting Tyler Huntley can be a threat with his legs.

Final thoughts

There’s a feeling among Utah fans that this team has a high ceiling on offense and this could finally be their year to take the South Division. However, unless players not named Britain Covey and Zach Moss step up, this team will continue to struggle and be nothing more than average offensively. There are a lot of pieces there, when you consider the offense Utah had over their last five games of 2017: nearly 1,000 yards passing and 7 TDs for Huntley (not to mention another 350 yards on the ground), 5.8 yards per carry and 7 TDs for Moss, and their young receivers like Simpkins and Nacua stepped up. Thrown in Covey to that mix and there’s potential.

What should scare Husky fans from this Utah offense is the passing downs success. Anyone concerned about the defense’s ability to get off the field on third downs should take their heart medication on Saturday. If the Utah offensive line plays like fans thought they would this year, the Huskies’ lack of edge play makers could make it too easy for Huntley to scramble or pass for third down yardage.

So, is Utah’s offense any good? I assure you, no one really knows. All the reports out of fall camp were positive for the offense: Tyler Huntley was making better decisions, receivers were stepping up in the absence of Husky-killers Raelon Singleton and Darren Carrington, and the offensive line with four returning starters was looking strong. So, the sluggish opening stanza for Utah offensively has been a bit of a surprise. Have they been looking ahead to this Saturday so they can exact revenge from two heartbreaking losses versus the Huskies? Hard to say. But, with so much of last year’s core returning, it’s a mystery why they’re this bad. I think we find out on Saturday night what both teams are made of.