Roll On: Previewing The Utah Defense

Last week I thought I was erring on the side of pessimism in guessing how Cal's offense would perform against USC's defense, yet Cal managed to score about half as many points as I would have guessed.  That's disheartening, particularly since Utah's defense is statistically better than USC's defense in almost every single way.

Now, there are always reasons for optimism.  For one, we haven't yet seen evidence that Utah holds an evil gypsy-voodoo curse over Cal the way USC does.  But the simple fact is that Utah is probably the 2nd best defense Cal has faced this year, and Cal is the 4th best offense Utah has gone up against.  Hearing things like that doesn't foster confidence.

Still, there are a few reasons to think that maybe, just maybe, Zach Maynard and company can regain their mojo enough to earn a win.  It's not like the Cal offense should need to score 30+.  And as ugly as his performances against Oregon and USC were, I still remember the confident, fearless Maynard who threw catchable balls all over the field to Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones.  We have no choice but to have faith that we see that type of dynamism again.

And if we can't regain that big play dynamism?  I'd settle for a calm, game-manager QB who doesn't throw any interceptions, at least in this one game.  Last week, USC didn't do a ton to win the game, as they were content to set back and let Cal hand it to them.  With a back-up quarterback Utah won't be lighting up the scoreboard.  An offense that doesn't handicap its own defense just might be enough if we get a great performance from defense and special teams.

Defensive Line: Left End – So. Joe Kruger ; Tackle – Jr. Dave Kruger OR Sr. James Aiono ; Nose Tackle – Jr. Star Lotulelei ; Right End – Sr. Derrick Shelby

The depth chart technically lists Dave Kruger and James Aiono as co-starters, but Kruger has 17 tackles to Aiono’s 2 and will almost certainly see the field much more often.  Star Lotulelei may be an all-conference performer just for his name, but the most productive lineman is DE Derrick Shelby, who has the most tackles, sacks, and tackles-for-loss of any Ute lineman.

Last week I noted that USC’s best lineman (Nick Perry) would go up against Cal’s best offensive lineman (Mitchell Schwartz) and that hopefully we could neutralize USC’s biggest threat.  That was generally true, as Perry only managed two tackles – but one of those tackles was a sack and forced fumble.  Once again Mitchell Schwartz will face the opponent’s best lineman – hopefully he will again have a full game of solid play, but this time without it getting ruined by one disastrous play.  As a side note: playing offensive line is a thankless task, and I don’t envy them in the slightest.

Linebackers: Left OLB – So. Brian Blechen OR So. Trevor Reilly ; MLB – Sr. Chaz Walker ; Right OLB – Sr. Matt Martinez

Like most decent 4-3 defenses, Utah has a talented veteran patrolling the middle of the field in Chaz Walker.  Walker leads the team in tackles, averaging over 8 per game.  But the biggest player to watch might be Trevor Reilly.  Reilly has just 17 total tackles, but 8 tackles for a loss and 4 sacks, leading the team in both categories.  He’s listed as a co-starter because he’s a rush linebacker who comes in to disrupt passing plays, and he’s been pretty darn effective so far – four forced fumbles!  Keeping him away from Zach Maynard and preventing the big hit will be huge.  Expect the Utes to find all kinds of creative ways to get Reilly into the backfield.  Cal’s line must be prepared on blitz pick-up.

You may note that Brian Blechen is listed as a co-starter despite being a leading tackler.  Why?  Let’s cover that in the next section:

Secondary: Left CB – Jr. Ryan Lacy OR Jr. Mo Lee ; Free Safety – Fr. Eric Rowe ; Strong Safety – So. Brian Blechen OR So. Michael Walker ; Right CB – Sr. Conroy Black

Because he’s also a co-starter at safety!  Previous starter Keith McHill suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, necessitating Blechen's return to safety.Blechen was originally recruited as a safety and he has two interceptions this year, so it certainly isn’t a case of a coach shoe-horning a player into an unfamiliar position for lack of better options.  Frankly, Utah’s defense is full of moving parts and players changing positions, and it’s been pretty successful so far this year perhaps because of that flexibility.

Ryan Lacy sees more playing time than Mo Lee at cornerback, and he’s also listed as the first string nickel back on passing downs, likely shifting over to the slot so that Lee can play corner.

When you see that a true freshman is starting at free safety you start dreaming of big plays over the middle to Keenan Allen.  But somewhat surprisingly, Utah is one of the best teams in the nation in preventing big passing plays – they have only allowed one play of 40+ yards, and no plays of 50+ or more (Cal, for comparison’s sake, has allowed 15 plays of 40+ yards).  That’s a credit either to the play of Eric Rowe, or the scheme the Utes use – probably both.  And it’s not like Utah hasn’t played teams that can exploit you going deep.  Matt Barkley and Brock Osweiler both have the ability and the targets to punish a weak secondary.

Still . . . a true freshmen and a sophomore converted linebacker as a safety pairing?  That has to be exploitable, right?!?

Against the run


2.82 yards/carry, 11th in the nation

That’s a pretty scary number, but it’s not completely hopeless.  Utah has had some completely dominating performances (like holding Pitt to 2.3 yards/carry or BYU to .5 yards/carry) but USC was able to find some success on the ground and Chris Polk blew up for 189 yards on 6.5/carry.  Of course, Isi Sofele isn’t Chris Polk and Cal’s offensive line, improvement and all, still probably isn’t as good as USC’s offensive line.  And considering how Cal’s passing attack has looked for the past few weeks, would it surprise anybody if Utah lines up with eight in the box, daring Cal to throw the ball?

Against the pass


6.4 yards/attempt, 32nd in the nation

Not quite as scary, but also pretty good.  Not surprisingly, Barkley, Osweiler and Price all outperformed 6.4 yards/attempt while BYU, Montana St. and Pitt did not.  So ask yourself: Is Zach Maynard closer to the first three, or closer to the latter three?  For what it’s worth, Robert Woods managed eight catches for 102 yards, so I would expect Mr. Leading-WR-in-the-nation Keenan Allen to get his yards and catches.  The question is if his production will be complimented with production from the running game or from other receivers.

As mentioned above, Utah is good at preventing long gains.  That implies that space is open to dink-and-dunk your way down the field underneath.  I’m not convinced that’s something our offense is capable of doing consistently, although we did it against inferior defenses in Washington and Colorado.

Stats of Dubious Predictive Value

A section for a variety of categories that may or may not be statistically significant, but impact games nonetheless.  All cited stats are from the 2011 season, which is admittedly a small sample size.

Turnovers

Utah has forced 16 turnovers (9 fumbles, 7 interceptions) which is good for 14th in the country.  You can interpret that as evidence that Utah is a hard hitting, opportunistic defense (probably true) or that BYU's skill players all have tiny hands that earn them a 'cold fish' rating on the love testing machine (also true).

K-39_medium
BYU: lacking in the passion necessary to hold on to the football?




3rd Down

36.26% opponent conversion rate, 26th in the country

I don't have much to say about this number.  While we're on the topic, I wish these charts were available week by week.  Much more insightful than raw 3rd down conversion rates.


Red Zone

44.44% Touchdown allowed percentage, 11th in the nation, 86.6% scoring allowed percentage, 68th in the nation

The 2nd number isn't very meaningful because it's heavily influenced by random turnovers and the quality of the opposition's field goal unit.  But that first number?  Scary.  It makes sense, though, that a team that can really stop the run would be very successful at preventing touchdowns in the red zone.  Could we please get a few 30-40 yard touchdowns?  Is that too much to ask?

Conclusions


Only one offense has really had a good day against Utah’s defense, and that’s Washington.  Utah’s loss to Arizona St. was fueled more by turnovers than any kind of defensive deficiency.  And of course the Utes hung in with USC late in the game on the road.

So I’d like to encourage our defense to supply the offense with short fields, please.  If not I don’t have a ton of faith in our offense to string together long drives against Utah’s defense, which is pretty clearly the strength of the team.  When a team has the ability to shut down the run and prevent big gains through the air that’s a pretty good formula to stop most drives.

As iffy as our offense has been, I’m very confident that it’s a better offense than the three teams Utah has completely shut down (BYU, Montana St. and Pittsburgh).  But I’m also confident that our offense isn’t as good as Arizona St., Washington or USC.  Which means that our baseline points total would be somewhere in the high teens, low twenties, moving up if we win the turnover battle and down if we lose it.

So really, it seems like a simple game to break down.  It’s two quarterbacks who are both inexperienced playing against BCS quality defenses, both with the propensity to throw the ball to guys wearing the wrong color.  Whichever guy does it less is probably the guy on the winning team when the game ends.

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