The Utah Utes are ranked in the top 10 heading into Saturday's matchup with the California Golden Bears and for good reason: they scored more points on Michigan than the Wolverines' other four opponents combined and they scored three times the number of points Oregon was able to generate on them while holding both teams to their lowest scoring of the year. The Utes' record is even more impressive when we consider that head coach Kyle Whittingham had to replace both his offensive and defensive coordinators after least season.
In fact the one constant in Salt Lake City over the last two decades has been Kyle Whittingham. He joined the coaching staff as the defensive line coach for his father who was defensive coordinator in 1994. He took over as defensive coordinator for his father in 1995 and remained the defensive coordinator until 2005 when he became Head Coach after Urban Meyer left for Florida. We can get an idea of how much Whittingham's coaching can have when he took over as special teams coach in 2014 and were ranked with the second best special teams in the nation. This year he has turned those duties over to the rest of his staff but it seems to have given him time to concentrate on everything else.
Kyle Whittingham has employed the 4-3 defense since he began at Utah. This is a scheme with 4 defensive linemen and 3 linebackers, the front seven. In a 2006 interview, then Utah defensive coordinator and current Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen defined some of the roles of the defensive front seven:
Since then Coach Wittingham has changed his base defense a little
"In fact, we base out of a 4-3 defense but last year (2014) was the first year that a majority of the snaps were not out of base defense. They were out of the nickel package and some of the sub-packages. Each year, it seems like you see [the pro-style offense] less and less. We have guys still in the program who played against it four or five years ago, like when Jared Norris first got here there were more teams doing that."
"Football is evolving and you have to go in a different direction," said Whittingham. "The offense sets the trend and the defense follows suit and the spread offense necessitates the defense adapt. Basically you won't see three-linebacker defense anymore, it just doesn't lend itself to these offenses."
Here is that that nickel package looks like on the field with the Rover replaced by a Defensive Back.
This play is early in the game and Utah has Oregon backed up to their own goal line after a great punt. The Utes are in a run stopping formation and have man-to-man coverage with a single safety behind it. Against this look Oregon might be expected to pass but Utah hid their defensive alignment with a late pre-snap motion.
With the MAC and the DB/Rover responsible for the running backs and 5 Offensive linemen to block the 5 Utah players on the line, Oregon has a man advantage with the quarterback keeping the ball. It is the ability of the defensive tackle #93 Lowell Lotulelei to occupy two blockers and hold his ground which allows the defensive end #51 Jason Fanaika to contain the quarterback and stop the play for no gain.
On the next play, once again Utah looks to be in their modified nickel 4-3 run stopping defense, but this is a decoy. If it was the run stopping defense then #41 Jared Norris would be lined up outside the Tight End as the STUD linebacker on the other side of the formation.
Oregon runs a play targeted at Norris, designed to get him in an option run or pass conundrum. But instead of staying on the line of scrimmage, #41 drops into a shallow zone where he can stop both the run and the pass.
Oregon has a contingency for this, hand off to the running back who has two linemen pulling to block MAC linebacker #13 Gionni Paul and the defensive back #15 Dominique Hatfield.
A great play by Hatfield forces this run back inside where Paul is able to beat his block and stop the running back long enough for the rest of the defensive front to arrive and finish the play. Look at the play again and notice how Defensive End #51 Jason Fanaika pushes his blocker into the back field which disrupts the pulling linemen and the running back. It is individual efforts like this across the whole front seven which allowed Utah to dominate.
However the Utah defense is not an unmovable wall. Oregon lines up in an obvious passing situation on 3rd down with 4 wide receivers. Utah counters by showing blitz with #13.
At the snap both linebackers drop into a shallow zone. At the top of the screen it appears to be man coverage with a deep safety over the top, but at the bottom of the screen Utah is in zone coverage.
The Oregon receivers are running two routes through the zone of #15, a deep route and an out route. No matter who he decides to cover, #15 will be in the wrong place.
With the Utah pass rush generating no pressure at all the Oregon quarterback has all day to find the open man at on the out route. If the Ducks starting quarterback, Vernon Adams, didn't have a broken finger (and if Oregon has a competent backup) the score would have been a lot closer than it ultimately was.
Hopefully the Bears will look to pass first and use the run to keep the Utah defense honest. Pass protection will be an important key against the Utes because if the Utah defense has a weakness it is against the pass.
It Never Rains at Autzen Stadium
Well, when it does rain, it pours... This game was a day when everything went wrong for the Ducks. This punt hits the wire for the overhead camera causing the officials to rule a re-punt from the same spot.
Seems like a fair decision on a fluke bad luck play, but Kyle Whittingham was in position to make luck turn his way with a fake punt:
"We lined up in that formation on the snap before when the punt hit the wire, and they didn’t line up properly to it. They didn’t cover it right, Whittingham said of Oregon. "So we dialed it (the fake) up, and we have a way to check out of it if they give us a different look, but based on the look we saw the snap before, it was there."
Utah punter Tom Hackett is an Australian Rules Football player, which means that unlike Washington State's punter, he is used to running with the ball in his hands.
Kyle Whittingham was out to make a statement at Oregon. If you have Pac-12 Networks, I recommend watching this episode of The Drive to see the replays of Devontae Booker's halfback pass, the misdirection punt return and some of the discussion around them.
Coming off a bye, Whittingham will have the Utes ready to play. Cal is going to have to play disciplined, continue to take advantage of turnovers, and execute their offense to compete. Utah is a team heavy with seniors and they are looking to make this year their year. It is up to Cal and Sonny Dykes to prove Saturday night on ESPN that this year is the year of the Golden Bear.