Utah was supposed to challenge USC for the Pac-12 South title, instead they are in the midst of rebuilding. What can GIFs from the recent Utah-Oregon State game tell us about the Utes?
Utah entered the year with a hyped defensive line; senior quarterback, Jordan Wynn; and senior running back, John White IV. That sounds like a recipe for success, but in the second game of the year they were caught in a brawl of a game with Utah State. That game went into overtime (featured in a previous Breakdown article of mine) and what hurt Utah more than the loss was the injury to White (ankle) and the career ending shoulder injury to Wynn. The Utes bounced back with a win against their other in state rival, BYU, led by senior backup quarterback Jon Hays. That week three win was the last one to date. After losing to USC, Coach Kyle Wittingham made a clear move toward rebuilding when he chose freshman quarterback Travis Wilson to start over Hays against UCLA and OSU.
The result of all of this is that Utah is a different team on offense than when they began the year. Wilson has been improving each game and Utah's first year offensive coordinator, Brian Johnson, has been improving his play calls. Don't let the score of Utah's loss to Oregon State last week fool you (21-7), Utah was in the game the whole way. The Utes out rushed the Beavers 135-52 yards and equaled them in passing 172-174 yards; the Utes had more first downs and fewer punts than the Beavers. It was the four Utah turnovers (2 fumbles, 2 interceptions) that really made the difference in the game.
Here is an example of a Travis Wilson passing play. Utah has 1st and 10 from their own 28 yard line trailing 14-0. Utah is lined up in a spread formation with two wide receivers to the left of the formation and a tight end tight to the left tackle. The running back is offset right of the quarterback and a single receiver is spilt to the right. Oregon State has three defensive backs in man coverage on the receivers and a deep safety. They have two middle linebackers and an outside backer lined up on the "strong" side of the formation (the side with the tight end). Oregon state has a defensive line stunt coupled with a two linebacker blitz planned. The defensive tackle will slant hard into the B gap between the offensive tackle and guard hoping to force a double team and create confusion. The defensive end will twist into A gap between the guard and center trying to force a blown blocking assignment. OSU doesn't stop there: the outside backer comes on an outside speed rush forcing the tight end to block him and the strong side middle backer blitzes between the tight end and tackle as well.
That is a whole lot for the left side of the offensive line to deal with but hey do an admirable job of picking up the blitz. The center blocks the defensive end, the left guard blocks the defensive tackle, the tight end blocks the outside linebacker (all circled in red). This turns out to be a Zone Read Play Action Bootleg Pass away from the side of the blitz, a perfect call. The offensive tackles are responsible for the middle backers, but both miss their blocks (the left tackle looks kind of mystified as to why his man is running away from the play; in the direction of the called blitz).
The play side defensive end is unblocked and bites hard on the run fake. Wilson has no pressure on him and rolls out to find his receiver who has made a double move that juked the cornerback out of his shoes.
What would have happened of the defensive end had stayed in a contain position? Wilson would likely have handed the ball off to Kelvin York (#13) making this a run-pass option. And if his receiver was not open, Wilson could have kept the ball for a 5 yard gain (more if the right tackle had not missed his block) or dumped it off to York out of the back field. This was a well designed and decently executed play. How will Cal defend it? That is a task I would not envy.
Travis Wilson is still a young quarterback and OSU used pressure to get a critical sack-fumble on third and 6 on Utah's 29 yard line. Utah has an empty back field with five wide receivers, two at the top of the screen and three on the bottom of the screen (one actually off camera). OSU has five DBs again in man coverage, with a linebacker in the middle of the field in zone coverage and a deep safety. OSU is going to run stunts on the left and right sides of the D-Line to generate pressure while dropping seven defenders into pass coverage. The defensive end at the top of the screen (black arrow) bull rushes the left tackle (runs directly at him, gets his hands under the tackle's pads and tries to push him backward) while the defensive tackle on that side loops around the outside. Toward the bottom of the screen the defensive tackle bull rushes the right guard while the defensive end takes an initial step toward the right tackle and then loops around to the center's left shoulder (the other side of the formation).
When Wilson completes his three step drop from shotgun he looks up and finds that all the defensive backs are playing bump-and-run coverage (contact on a receiver in college is legal until the ball is in the air). The ball is supposed to be thrown now, but Wilson doesn't see either of his first two reads open (top of the screen).
The center and the right side of the line are triple team blocking the D-Tackle on that side while the left tackle is being driven into the center of the pocket. Both looping D-linemen have free paths to the quarterback.
A closer view of the same play
Even with all the poor blocking Wilson has three seconds to get rid of the ball. As was shown in this linked article, an NFL quarterback has an average of three seconds before being sacked. Why is the average exactly three seconds? Probably because linemen (on offense and defense) are taught that they have that long before the ball is thrown and quarterbacks are told to throw the ball within three seconds. The under-developed internal clock is one reason why pressure works so well on a young quarterback and Wilson has shown he is susceptible to that pressure. (Calculating the time a NCAA quarterback has would be interesting, yet massively daunting)
The strength of Utah has been its defense and there is no reason to believe that will change this Saturday. In fact I saw something interesting when Oregon State was facing 3rd and long (13 yards). OSU is in a spread formation (very similar to the Arizona spread I brokedown last week) with two receivers to the left, an H-back on the left, running back on the right and one wide receiver on the right. Utah is showing a six man blitz with a DB lined up over each receiver and two safeties standing at 1st down distance.
OSU adjusts to the blitz look by keeping the running back and H-back in to help with blocking. However at the snap Utah drops five defenders into a shallow zone (the three linebackers who were at the line of scrimmage, one DB at the top of the screen and one at the bottom) while the DB at the very top of the screen drops into a three deep look with the two safeties. What makes this defense even more interesting is the D-Tackle circled in white. We can see in this frame that he is engaged with the center.
However just a few frames later that circled D-Tackle has dropped into a zone coverage underneath the shallow 5 man zone. Only two D-linemen rushing the quarterback but this leaves seven men blocking those two and means that there are NINE men covering three receivers.
Amazingly Cody Vaz, the OSU quarterback, is able to find a receiver and complete the pass for what should have been a first down. The receiver's move backward does what the defense cannot, prevent the first down.
This defense uses the blocking adjustment of the offense against them to reduce the quarterback's options. It is an interesting prevent defense and something that Cal should plan for ('cause, you know... 3rd and long is a theme of the season).
No post about Utah is complete without talking about Star Lotulelei (especially since the first post I ever wrote was about him). This is a guy that Matt Millen calls a potential first overall NFL draft pick though Detroit Lions fans know how good he was at drafting. Although Lotulelei didn't have the impact against Oregon State that he had against USC (his play was key in setting up an early 14-0 lead for the Utes) he was still a factor. This 1st and 10 play is an example of how disruptive he can be.
Utah has seven men lined up "in-the-box" , this should mean that they have a man advantage against an Oregon State run. To counter this Oregon State will have a receiver crack back the linebacker on the left side of the OSU formation. The H-back will pull and block the defensive end on the (OSU) left. Star Lotulelei (#92) is circled in red. The run is designed to go right at him and while this may sound like madness, OSU will double team him and then have the tackle chip up to the middle linebacker; a strategy that Cal used to good effect last year.
But that was last year... On this play Lotulelei displays his lightning quickness as he is the first to react to the snap of the ball, most of the offensive line has not even started to move and they know the snap count.
Lotulelei's quickness gave him an advantage and his strength allows him to exploit that advantage as he drives into the backfield (keeping his pads lower than the guard's which is impressive because the guard was still bent over in his stance when Lotulelei first made contact). The double team never materialized as Lotulelei was on the far side of the guard by the time the left tackle got out of his stance. The guard is trying to drive him away from the play but Lotulelei is able to hold him off with one arm while using the other arm to try to make a tackle.
The running back, desperately trying to avoid Star Lotulelei, runs right into the defensive end for a loss.
And a closer look...
Star Lotulelei is quick, strong, and has a wrestler's ability to stay on his feet despite being blocked by multiple linemen. This year Utah rarely substitutes him out of the game and his biggest impact plays seem to come form the first half of the first quarter. If Cal can make him work, he could tire and fade from the game. That said, the play I just highlighted took place in the 4th quarter. The other thing that Cal MUST do is vary the snap count. If not, then we can expect Lotulelei to live in the back field.
The Utah offensive line looks suspect in these plays, especially the tackles. The quarterback is young and the run game is less effective than last year. At the start of the year the run and pass formations were predictable but they have become more deceptive.
Utah this year has many similarities to Cal: senior QB, senior RB, hyped defense and first year play caller in the booth. The results for both teams have been similar (except Utah plays WSU next week). Utah has made a clear move towards the future while Tedford has stuck with the same formula that he has been using all year. Of course Wittingham would probably still be starting Wynn if he could still play, but this game will be an interesting contrast between the two strategies. It is a comparison that will have to be followed into next year to determine which was ultimately most successful.
You may have noticed the "byline" of this article. Well let me assure you that Liffeytroll and Liffeybear are the same person. Liffeytroll was my fantasy baseball user name and one which was easy to start using when writing Fanposts. As writing these Breakdowns has become a more regular thing for me; I wanted to choose a name that was more site specific, reflected the inner Golden Bear fan in me and marked me as a proud Cal alumnus while keeping some continuity with my previous posts.