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Scouting Utah: Rest of the Pac Breakdown 2016

A breakdown of the Utah Utes offense and play calling by committee.

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is the longest surviving Pac-12 head coach, having acquired that distinction after Mike Riley abandoned Oregon State for Nebraska.  Last year I looked at Whittingham's defensive philosophy.  This year I'm going to highlight some of Utah's offensive tendencies.  From the outside, the Utah offensive coaching structure appears byzantine: two co-offensive coordinators and an assistant head coach.

Their areas of responsibility were clearly outlined when the unique situation was announced early last spring [2015] — Jim Harding would coach the offensive line and focus on running plays while [Aaron] Roderick would work with the quarterbacks and oversee pass plays. But then there is also assistant head coach Dennis Erickson, who is also the running backs coach.

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Even during games, under the pressure of competition and in real-time, there is no alpha dog.

"In between series or when we’re on defense, we’ll say, ‘Hey what do we want to look at in this next series,'" Harding said. "I’ll give suggestions in the run game, and coach Rod and Dennis are upstairs talking about the pass game. We talk about, ‘Do we want to run or pass first? And then it’s just a collaborative effort.’ What’s working? What do we feel is going give us the best chance?"

Yes, that is the same Dennis Erickson who was head coach for: the 49ers and the Seahawks; the WSU Cougars, OSU Beavers and ASU Sun Devils; Idaho, Wyoming and Miami (where he won two National Championships).  The man who helped pioneer the  one-back offense: a pre-cursor to the spread offense.

Erickson solidifed the one-back’s offensive package, based on several important principles:

1. One-back formations, with the base being three wide-receivers, one tight-end and one runningback. (Other coaches would put different spins on it, whether with four receivers or two tight-ends.)
2. A running game consisting of inside and outside zone, Power-O and the counter trey.
3. A heavy emphasis on the three-step drop passing game.
4. "Option routes" as the base of the five-step drop passing game.
5. A systematic or "constraint play" approach to playcalling.

The Utes' offense is a heavily modified version of this one back offense.  Gone are the 3 and 5 step drops, in favor of the shotgun.  Even the One-back of the system is gone, Utah will often play with an additional back, the H-Back who is a hybrid position between a fullback and a tight end.  In fact, the two players we will most often see playing H-Back on Saturday, #18 Evan Moeai and #88 Harrison Handley are listed on the Utah depth chart as Tight Ends. The Utah spread offense takes full advantage of this hybrid position:

With the spread we are seeing teams that don't need the true to form tight end, rather, they need a player that is athletic enough to be versatile in their formations. A player that can put his hand on the line and block zone, lineup in the backfield to catch a shovel pass and flex outside of the tackle box to beat a linebacker in coverage; all on the same series of downs.

By having that versatility in a player, instead of the old school blocking tight end, they are able to substitute less while creating more diverse looks for a defense to counter, all while pushing the tempo.

And it works great, because ultimately it allows teams to run a multitude of simple concepts from formations that look wildly different, all to obtain the same result. Plus, because the formations look different to the defense, you end up with different match-ups, different spacing and different angles.

Here is the H-back in the Utah formation.  In this case it is #18 Evan Moeai, who was granted a medical redshirt to play a fifth year of eligibility.  Moeai was the best blocker employed at H-back during the USC game last Friday.  There is an old addage in football which says that if you want to know where the offense is going to run the ball then watch the fullback.  Well in the Utah offense you will hear about their "running back by committee" but if you want to know where the play is going then pay attention to the H-back.

On a rainy night in Salt Lake City the Utes established the run early with 13 consecutive running plays to start the game against the Trojans.  This play was an Outside Zone Run.  The zone blocking scheme is a system for assigning players for each lineman to block. Instead of trying to pre-assign blocking assignments for every possible defensive front, the zone system simplifies a lineman's read: is he covered with a defender in front of him or uncovered with no defender directly in front.  If covered, the lineman blocks the defender covering him, if uncovered then the lineman assists another lineman with blocking.

The "zone" aspect comes in with "uncovered" linemen. If "uncovered," the lineman must step "playside" — i.e. the side the run is going to — and help double-team the defensive linemen along with his "covered" cohort. Once the two of them control that down defensive lineman, one of the offensive linemen slides off to hit a linebacker.

On this play the offensive linemen will step to their left and put their bodies between the defensive line and the direction of the run.  The H-back #18 and the Left Tackle will double team the SC Defensive End.  Once the edge is sealed the H-back will move to the second level, the linebacker, to prevent pursuit from the inside.

Here is how the play unfolded:

Here is the same play run to the right side.  This time #88 is the H-back.  Once again he will try to seal the edge by blocking the Defensive End.

USC sophomore #45 Porter Gustin impressed me with his run defense in this game.  Here he recognizes the outside zone blocking scheme and stays outside of the blocking H-back forcing this run back inside where the rest of his team is waiting.

In this next play Utah is lined up in a similar formation, but not identical.  There is a tight end on the right side of the line, the running back has moved beside the quarterback (instead of directly behind the quarterback on the outside zone runs) and the H-back will motion across the formation before the snap.

Once again the H-back will tell us where the run is going.  In this case #18 follows the pulling guard and lead blocks for the running back.

The Utah offense also uses a Zone Read, which we have become very accustomed to in modern college football.  The Utes line up with three wide receivers to their left and #88 is lined up as a Tight End on the right.  USC is lined up with 3-3-5 personnel: three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.

Utah will leave the defensive end #45 unblocked, he will be the player the quarterback reads on the zone read.  #35 is the linebacker on the play side (where the run will go), he comes on a blitz and ends up being blocked by the right tackle.  The Left Guard pulls through the hole to lead block.

Below is the moment of the read:

The defensive end commits to the outside to prevent a big play, the quarterback sees this and keeps the ball.  Since the linebacker #35 came on a blitz, he is out of position to make a play on the quarterback who follows the left guard for a first down (with the help of a hold by the right tackle on #35).

Here is the same play, run at a critical 3rd and 1 in the last 1:30 of the 4th quarter.  This time Utah has 4 wide receivers in order to provide a passing threat on the outside where after a completion a receiver can get out of bounds and stop the clock.  But Utah's identity is a running team and a first down will stop the clock too.  So they run the zone read...

Once again #45 is the player that the Quarterback will read.  The pulling left guard is responsible for blocking #35.  But this time #45 stays parallel to the line of scrimmage and scrapes to the outside while #35 stacks behind him.  the pulling guard cannot adjust to the angle to #35 and because of the stack the Quarterback is left with a no win decision on his read:

From this next angle, it is easier to see how the DE/LB stack foils this zone read play.

This set up 4th and 1 with the game on the line.  So what play does Utah's offensive brain trust dial up?  Another run.  And who is lead blocking?  Our friend, the H-back, #18.

The Utah line makes a statement by pushing the USC defense backwards for a 5 yard gain.

Although the Utes are clearly most comfortable calling running plays, on the season their offense is fairly balanced in run/pass plays.  Against USC, Quarterback Troy Williams was inconsistent on long passing plays but what he did execute well was the slant pass.

Utah has four wide receivers with a single back, while USC has 5 defensive backs in a man-free coverage: man to man coverage on all four receivers and on the running back with a deep safety to assist where needed deep down the field.

When the quarterback throws the ball we can see that the linebacker has followed the running back out into the flat while the inside receiver runs 5 yards down field before making his break.

This play shreds the man to man coverage because the Linebacker abandons the middle of the field to cover the running back in the flat.  The moment he crosses in front of the slot receiver the Quarterback throws the ball behind the linebacker.  The Defensive back with man coverage on the slot receiver cannot make a play because the receiver's body acts as a shield between the DB and the ball.

Here is the same play, except it is run to the opposite side of the field.  The offense is lined up with three receivers to the left and one on the right.  USC is again in Man Free coverage.  On this play the quarterback gives a pump fake to the flat to move the linebacker before throwing the slant.

Everyone this season will run the ball on the Golden Bears until Cal proves they can consistently stop the run, but Utah is going to run the ball on Saturday because that is what they do.  Watch the H-back to see where the runs will go, expect to see the occasional deep pass attempt, but if Cal switches to Man to Man coverage to allow linebackers to stack the box, watch for Utah to attempt the slant pass.