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Cal football season review: How was our performance against Utah?

On October 10, 2015, our California Golden Bears arrived to face off against Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium in a clash between undefeated teams. Cal would fall short on a potential game-winning drive in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, delivering a valiant effort even on a night where star QB Jared Goff struggled against a strong Utah defense. Though it was a disappointing loss for Cal, the general consensus was that it was a hopeful performance nonetheless. Were they right to be hopeful? Let’s break down Utah’s season.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Season Overview

After their win over Cal, Utah would rise to the #3 ranking in the FBS with an undefeated record of 6-0. However, they would go through their own ups and downs as the very next week they would accrue their first loss of the season against a talented USC team. Utah would end their season with a bowl victory over rival BYU, leaving them with a 9-3 record and the #17 ranking in the FBS.

Like past seasons, Utah's offense would once again prove to be their weakness. They ended the season with the 97th ranked total offense in the FBS, averaging a lowly 363.0 yards per game. The focal point of the Utah offense was undoubtedly their run game as they ran on a whopping 61.9% of their plays, passing on only 38.1% of their plays. Led by senior RB Devontae Booker, who averaged 4.7 yards per carry, the Utah run offense averaged 183.0 yards per game.

Senior QB Travis Wilson would also factor heavily into the run game, rushing 140 times with an average of 3.5 yards per carry. However, he was unable to match his production on the ground through the air, averaging only 180.0 yards per game. Though the Utes QBs completed 63.6% of their passes, they would average a meager 6.65 yards per attempt and an equally abysmal 10.45 yards per completion, good for 119th out of 127 teams in the FBS.

Their receiving corp was a balanced group led by freshman WR Britain Covey who would average 43.2 yards per game. The offense was solid in turnovers and pass protection, with 21 turnovers on the year (10 fumbles and 11 interceptions) and only surrendering 1.77 sacks per game. Two areas where Utah truly excelled was 4th down conversions, succeeding on 66.7% of their attempts, and in the red zone where they scored on 91.3% of their trips including a touchdown on 61% of those trips.

Utah's defense would surrender only 366.8 yards per game, good for the 41st ranked total defense. The glaring weakness of this defense was their pass defense as they would surrender 258.2 yards per game through the air, 102nd in the FBS.

However, they would make up for it by intercepting 22 passes, led by sophomore free safety Marcus Williams with 5, and return 3 for a TD. In fact, they were 2nd in the nation in takeaways with 34 on the season as they would also recovered 12 fumbles and return 2 for a TD. Furthermore, Utah's run defense was ranked 6th in the nation, allowing a paltry 108.6 yards per game on the ground.

They would also provide a stellar 2.85 sacks per game and 7.2 tackles for loss per game. Strong all around play from this defense led by senior linebackers Gionni Paul and Jared Norris would result in them allowing only 22.3 points per game, constantly providing a chance for Utah to win games.

Special Teams
Another continuation from past seasons is the strong play of the special teams unit led by the top punter in the country Tom Hackett, who would average 48.0 yards per punt. Hackett was also well-known for his ability to pin opposing teams and provide valuable field position for his team, dropping of a total 61 punts, 24 inside the 20-yard line, 11 inside the 10-yard line, and two inside the 5-yard line with only 9 touchbacks. The whole punt team allowed only 79 punt return yards on the season. The dominance of the punt team, in conjunction with solid efforts by the kicking team and the return teams resulted in a huge advantage for Utah on special teams as they were able to flip the field on a regular basis.

When it came down to it, Utah's stifling defense outplayed Cal's explosive offense, converting on their chances and coming away with 6 takeaways. Though Cal's defense kept the team in the game, they were unable to stop Devontae Booker who ran for 222 yards and 2 TDs. In retrospect, I believe that we must look back on this as a lost opportunity for Cal. Even though Utah was a quality team with a stout defense and an elite special teams, this game could just as well been a fantastic win for Cal had Goff been able to come through.