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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Utah Offense

The Utes are undefeated, but their offense still has a lot to prove.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

There are four undefeated teams left in the Pac 12: Washington, Arizona State, Utah, and...actually no, I think that’s it. Just three. Not sure why I thought there were four. Don’t look it up for yourself. Just take my word on this one.

Of those four definitely just three remaining undefeated teams, which one intimidates you most? As you may recall, Arizona State just beat Cal a few short days ago, so I’ll put them at number one. The Huskies whooped on a whole bunch of nobodies but showed some fortitude in a tight one against Arizona, so they’re number two. I’m not sure they’re really conference title material yet, but they’ve looked like the much better team every time they were expected to. And Utah? No disrespect to them, especially since they’ve beaten the Trojans more times this week than Cal has in a decade, but I’m just not that afraid of the Utes.

Don’t get me wrong, guy who picks out the bulletin board material for the Utah locker room, they’re undefeated and I absolutely believe they can hang in the Pac-12 South. But let’s take a closer look at their 4-0 start, because it’s just a little bit deceptive.

  • 24-0 over Southern Utah: Big whoop, anyone can beat a Big Sky team. Actually...I take that back. The Utes didn’t exactly run the Thunderbirds out of the stadium, but they got the job done in their opener, so I give them credit for that.
  • 20-19 over BYU: The Utes looked pretty pedestrian against the Cougars, surviving on BYU’s failed 2-point conversion try. Props to the Utah defense for hanging in there while the O coughed up six turnovers, but also...they did cough up those six turnovers. In this case, they made it work. BYU is 1-3, owning an 18-16 win over Arizona.
  • 34-17 over San Jose State: Again, it’s a fine win. But if you don’t #drop50 on your random non-conference opponents, then what’s the point? Plus, Utah trailed for much of the first half against the lowly Spartans. This is kind of their version of Cal’s Hawaii game, letting a lesser opponent hang around for too long.
  • 31-27 over USC: The Trojans are a dysfunctional mess right now, but it remains to be seen whether they’re a 3-9 mess or a how do they always manage to turn this around just before they play Cal kind of mess. This is an important win for the Utes in terms of the Pac-12 South standings, but a four point win over a very troubled team isn’t terribly inspiring. It’s not quite a signature win just yet.

These wins might look a lot better in November, but for now this is the 4-0 team I’m (relatively) happy to be playing this week. I’m not confident, per se, but I can see why Cal is favored. Utah hasn’t put together a complete game yet. Can they finally do so against the Bears?

Quarterback

Taking over the QB spot after Travis Wilson’s graduation is JuCo transfer Troy Williams. If you paid very close attention to the Washington Huskies in 2014, you’ll remember Williams the guy who started two games when Cyler Myles went down with a concussion. If you were doing other things that year, then just know that he spent the next season at Santa Monica College before transferring to Utah and winning the job there. He’s had an up-and-down start to the season, throwing 6 TDs against 4 INTs while completing about 63% of his passes. Though he missed a few shots downfield against USC, he’s got good enough accuracy to keep defenses honest. And while the numbers may not make him seem like much of a rushing threat (3.5 ypc on 17 attempts), he looked quick and decisive on his feet in the film that I watched. We’ll see if that’s something his coaches begin to integrate as he develops in this offense.

Those coaches, by the way, are Co-OCs Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding. They’re Utah’s first offensive playcallers since 2008 to keep their jobs in consecutive seasons, so they must be doing something right. Roderick and Harding have professed a desire for a balanced offense, but they seem to rely a little bit more on the run than the pass (about 55% run). This offense reminds me a bit of SDSU, where they’d prefer to run the ball until that plan stops working. They’ve also got a pretty healthy play-action and screen game to prevent the defense from cheating up.

Running Backs

Plans have changed a little bit in the backfield, as expected starter Joe Williams proved largely ineffective in two games before quitting the team on September 13th. Picking up the reins are freshman #2 Zack Moss and junior #4 Troy McCormick. Moss, the bigger back at 5’10” 213 lbs, has taken on the bulk of the carries and delivered 5.3 yards per carry. McCormick is smaller and more explosive, but has shown pretty good balance considering his size. He hasn’t shown any ill effects from the knee injury that kept him out last season, and currently leads the team in yards per carry and rushing touchdowns.

Late addition Armand Shyne, who transferred this summer from the same junior college that produced Devontae Booker, will also contribute. He had a breakout 92-yard game against SJSU and should be in the mix after a quieter but still solid performance against USC.

Receiving Corps

The book on this group is that they lack a home run threat after losing their top three wideouts this offseason. But that doesn’t seem to be the case thanks to the emergence of senior Tim Patrick. The starter at the X position, Patrick has attracted a Chad Hansen-esque 29% target rate, which he has converted into a team-leading 5 TDs. He’s the weapon this offense sorely needed after missing last season with an injury. At H is fellow senior Cory Butler-Byrd, who was suspended for an off-field issue before fall camp but earned his reinstatement a few weeks ago. Through just two games, Butler-Byrd is already Williams’ second-favorite target.

Rounding out the group are sophomores Raelon Singleton and Tyrone Smith, plus tight ends Evan Moeai and Harrison Handley. Smith has been out for the last two weeks, and isn’t listed on the two-deep against Cal.

Offensive Line

Most of the group that did such a good job blocking for Devontae Booker returns to bolster this offense. Three members of this all-upperclassman unit started every game last season, and the consistency on the depth chart is paying off. The Utes lead the conference in sacks allowed, with just 1.25/game. Senior J.J Dielman shifted into the vacant center position, and JC transfer Garett Boles filled in the resulting spot at left tackle. There’s still room for this unit to improve its run blocking, as the Utes currently average 173.5 ypg, only good for seventh in the conference.