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Utah Offensive Preview

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A talented dual-threat QB with a solid running game. What could possibly go wrong?

NCAA Football: Washington State at Utah
Tyler Huntley tests out his new chair.
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Doom! Gloom! Cal has held 14 straight opponents to 24 points or less, the longest active FBS streak in college football. Cal will be facing the biggest threat to that streak in the Utah offense.


Utah is coming off a season-low 21 points against Arizona State in a 21-3 victory, a score that would have been much uglier if not for the 4 turnovers Utah lost (Utah had only lost 3 turnovers combined in their first 6 games). It’s a bit of a judgment call on how “forced” these turnovers were, with three of them coming on fumbles as players were tackled, and Huntley’s first interception of the season on what appeared to be a miscommunication with his wide receiver, so I’d venture to guess that Utah is unlikely to cough up the ball this much again without some nice defensive plays on Cal’s part. Utah is led by the very talented dual-threat QB Tyler Huntley, and he’s backed up by a bevy of talented power running backs. Utah has their fast explosive players at wide receiver. If there is one chink in the armor for Utah’s offense, it’d be their offensive line— and don’t get me wrong, they’re still pretty good, I’m only speaking relative to the rest of the units on offense. Fortunately for Utah, even if protection breaks down, Tyler Huntley is a very hard man to sack, as he’s seemingly able to Houdini his way out of some tackles. Utah is actually 7th in the FBS in fewest sacks allowed with just 6 sacks so far this season (5 of which were on Huntley). That means Utah gives up less than a sack per game. This is an offense that keeps moving forward.

Quarterback

Tyler Huntley holds the distinction of being the only dual-threat quarterback in the Pac-12 that can throw the ball well. That is to say that you can take away his ability to run, and he’d still be a pretty good quarterback. Unlike most dual-threat quarterbacks, Huntley still looks to make a play through the air first, and it’s only once he’s exhausted his reads that he’ll take off and run it himself. Huntley currently has 229 rushing yards on 48 attempts, an average of 4.8 yards per carry, with his longest run of the season being just 22 yards. That means that when Huntley runs the ball, he’s usually picking up positive yards.

Let’s be clear here, Huntley is a good runner:

QB Tyler Huntley makes a nice cut as he keeps it himself for the TD.
QB Tyler Huntley makes a nice cut as he keeps it himself for the TD.

Here we can see good protection for Huntley, but with no one that* open, he decides to run it himself for the touchdown:

QB Tyler Huntley keeps it himself for the 15 yard rushing TD.
QB Tyler Huntley keeps it himself for the 15 yard rushing TD.

*Brief aside: yes, he probably could have hit WR Derrick Vickers on the crossing route, but for whatever reason, Huntley doesn’t typically like these throws.

But here is where Huntley distinguishes himself from the typical dual-threat quarterback. On 3rd and long, even as the pocket is breaking down and he has open space in front of him, Huntley dodges a sack and keeps his eyes downfield to make a big throw for the first down.

QB Tyler Huntley avoids pressure while keeping his eyes downfield; Huntley makes a nice throw to WR Solomon Enis.
QB Tyler Huntley avoids pressure while keeping his eyes downfield; Huntley makes a nice throw to WR Solomon Enis.

Unlike other dual-threat quarterbacks in the Pac-12, there’s no obvious way to defend against Huntley. Against Khalil Tate, Jayden Daniels, and Dorian Thompson-Robinson, good defenses take away their ability to run and dare them to beat them through the air. With a quarterback that’s just as adept at throwing the ball as he is running the ball, there really are no good options. In fact, in 2018, every team that held Huntley below his season average in yards per carry (2.8) actually lost to Utah. If you stopped Huntley from running the ball last year, he beat you through the air. If Huntley had a lot of yards and a lot of carries, it was actually a good sign for your defense, because it meant that Huntley couldn’t find open receivers: Huntley averaged 4.6 yards per carry and 55.6 yards rushing per game in the 3 losses Utah had with Huntley as the starter last year.

Of course, when you have a player as good at running the ball as Huntley, of course you’re going to have him run it:

Great zone read by QB Tyler Huntley, watch as the entire defense flows to the right before he takes it the other way.
Great zone read by QB Tyler Huntley, watch as the entire defense flows to the right before he takes it the other way.

I actually don’t have many highlight clips of Tyler Huntley throwing the ball this year. It’s not that Huntley can’t make nice throws (he had plenty of them last year), it’s just that he typically finds a way to buy himself so much time to throw the ball that eventually a receiver will become wide open. With that being said, here is my favorite throw from Huntley this season. Huntley hits his receiver in stride between the corner and the safety:

Great throw by QB Tyler Huntley on the inside fade route to WR Jaylen Dixon.
Great throw by QB Tyler Huntley on the inside fade route to WR Jaylen Dixon.

Here’s another one I like, where Huntley stands in the pocket and delivers a nice throw even as he knows he’s about to get hit by a free rusher:

QB Tyler Huntley over the middle to TE Brant Kuithe.
QB Tyler Huntley over the middle to TE Brant Kuithe.

Again, it’s very likely Huntley could have tucked the ball, evaded the rusher, and picked up some yards on the ground. He made a conscious decision to stand in the pocket and throw it, because he knew he would get more yards throwing the ball than running it himself. This is why Tyler Huntley is one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12. Unfortunately, while Cal did a great job against Justin Herbert (holding him to a season-low 214 yards passing and his only INT this season), Cal doesn’t have a great history against dual-threat quarterbacks in the Pac-12. Remember that statistic I gave in the beginning of the article, about Cal having 14 straight games of holding opponents to 24 points or less? The game before that streak started: Dorian Thompson-Robinson leading UCLA to a 37-7 victory over Cal over a year ago, on 10/13/2018. The game before that? A loss to Arizona’s Khalil Tate. And who put up 24 points on Cal this year? Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels.

Tyler Huntley will pose all sorts of problems for the Cal defense.

Running back

Utah has a lot of running backs, and they all look pretty similar: they’re all 200+ pound bruising running backs. Zack Moss, Devonta’e Henry-Cole, Devin Brumfield, TJ Green, Jordan Wilmore... I could leave the names off the clips, and I’m not sure I’d be able to tell who’s who.

Let’s start with the starter, Zack Moss. I’ll probably forever be biased against Moss as the guy who ran left when he should have run right in that 2016 Cal-Utah game where Dykes-era Cal somehow showed up with a defense for once. It’s probably not fair to judge his vision as a freshman for that one play, but it’s also his most memorable moment to me as a biased Cal fan. However, he’s come a long way since then, as he just set the all-time rushing record for Utah last game on this run:

RB Zack Moss set the Utah all-time rushing record on this run.
RB Zack Moss set the Utah all-time rushing record on this run.

Zack Moss is a running back that doesn’t shy away from contact. He’s not the best with lateral movements, so he opts to try and run through defenders and fall forward doing so:

A standard RB Zack Moss run up the middle.
A standard RB Zack Moss run up the middle.

Moss is able to reliably pick up yards on short runs— he averages a very impressive 5.73 yards per carry in his career— but that doesn’t make for the best highlights. Moss is the Toyota 4Runner of running backs: not flashy but very reliable, and can definitely run you over (I spent longer than I’ll admit reading about the reliability of various cars to make this joke). What Moss lacks is real breakaway speed. Anyway, here’s Moss breaking away from Oregon State for a career-long 91 yard run and touchdown:

I had to degrade the quality of this GIF repeatedly to upload it to SBNation because of the length of this clip. This is a 91 yard TD run by RB Zack Moss.
I had to degrade the quality of this GIF repeatedly to upload it to SBNation because of the length of this clip. This is a 91 yard TD run by RB Zack Moss.

You’re less likely to believe me this week, but OSU has a terrible run defense. Moss’ previous career-long was against Weber State, which means that Moss isn’t outrunning people at the FBS level very often. I will say though that Moss does a good job of following his blockers and having the patience to let run lanes develop.

Anyway, here’s another clip of Zack M... err, Devonta’e Henry-Cole:

Nice downhill running by RB Devonta’e Henry-Cole.
Nice downhill running by RB Devonta’e Henry-Cole.

Have you noticed a pattern yet? Utah RBs try to run straight through defenders, which can definitely wear down a defense, especially one without much depth.

It may sound like I’m being belittling, but consider it gallows humor. All of Utah’s running backs are extremely solid. Zack Moss, Devonta’e Henry-Cole, and Devin Brumfield can all steamroll their way through a defensive line.

The Utes also have a freshman running back who has shown a lot of promise. Here’s Jordan Wilmore dragging a smack-talking Jalen Moore over the goal line:

RB Jordan Wilmore drags S Jalen Moore across the goal line for a touchdown.
RB Jordan Wilmore drags S Jalen Moore across the goal line for a touchdown.

Utah has a ton of depth at the running back position, and it really doesn’t matter who lines up in the backfield: they’re all effective runners.

Receivers

Alright, so we just watched a lot of Utah players run through defenders. You may be asking yourself, “Can Utah players also run around defenders?” Also yes. Those players typically line up at wide receiver, and they’ll take hand-offs on jet motion sweeps. Utah will run a lot of plays out of this formation, and you can expect them to get especially tricky in the red zone as they continue to add misdirection to the play. Utah’s most versatile and explosive player, WR Britain Covey, was typically the guy that would get the ball on this sort of play (he could even throw the ball off the jet sweep!), but he’s injured this season and likely to use a redshirt. It’s a shame because he’s such an exciting player to watch, but he’s taken some really nasty hits, from legal ones against Washington to illegal ones against USC.

Nowadays, the receiver Utah uses on this sort of play will either be Derrick Vickers or Jaylen Dixon. Here’s one such example of the play, where WR Jaylen Dixon takes the hand-off on the jet sweep:

Jet sweep by the speedy WR Jaylen Dixon.
Jet sweep by the speedy WR Jaylen Dixon.

Utah will run a lot of plays that look like this, trying to see if they can get a defense out of position (and remember that they effectively have 3 players that can run the ball from here; the QB, RB, and WR), but once Utah gets in the red zone, they’ll throw in something they haven’t put on tape before. Here’s one such example:

Jump pass in the red zone from Huntley to TE Cole Fotheringham for the TD.
Jump pass in the red zone from Huntley to TE Cole Fotheringham for the TD.

This is one of Utah’s 3 red zone passing touchdowns from this season, as they nearly always try to run the ball in. Utah will always get creative here, especially if they’re losing.

If you’re keeping track at home, we know the typical Utah RB will be a strong and powerful runner, and the typical Utah WR will be a speedy and elusive runner. Back to the original purpose of this section, let’s see some receivers actually, uh, receive some passes.

WR Bryan Thompson has quietly emerged as Utah’s leading receiver. Here we can see him simply outrun a poor Idaho State corner:

WR Bryan Thompson burns an overmatched Idaho State corner on a go-route for an 82 yard TD.
WR Bryan Thompson burns an overmatched Idaho State corner on a go-route for an 82 yard TD.

Utah receivers are very good at finding the soft spots of zone coverage, especially if you give Huntley all day to throw. Here Thompson simply spins off an attempted tackle by the safety Bryce Beekman:

S Bryce Beekman simply bounces off WR Bryan Thompson as he runs for 54 yards.
S Bryce Beekman simply bounces off WR Bryan Thompson as he runs for 54 yards.

Here’s a great throw by Huntley but an even better catch by WR Samson Nacua:

Great back shoulder catch by WR Samson Nacua.
Great back shoulder catch by WR Samson Nacua.

Why is Utah taking a shot at the endzone on 4th and 7 in the 1st quarter while up 14-0 against OSU? We’ll get to that in a moment.

Demari Simpkins and Samson Nacua have been reliable second and third options for Utah for a long time now, but they may be expected to step up without a clear #1 play-maker at wide receiver. Also, since you’ll hear it 20 times during any Utah broadcast, did you know that Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss, and Demari Simpkins were high school teammates at Hallandale?

I used my Brant Kuithe clip earlier in the article, but I also wanted to mention him again here: tight end Brant Kuithe is quickly become a reliable target for Tyler Huntley, and he’s improved a ton since last year. I think Kuithe has a lot of potential. I don’t have many highlights of him either, since he usually gets himself wide open, but Kuithe is actually the #3 receiver this year, so you can figure he’ll make an impact in this game as well.

Special teams

Finally, something Utah isn’t dominating. Utah lost star punter Mitch Wishnowsky and kicker Matt Gay to the NFL, and while they found a suitable replacement in Australian punter Ben Lennon, they still have a bit of a liability at kicker.

By the way, if you haven’t seen what Wishnowsky is doing in the NFL, you have to see this:

The presumed backup kicker, Chayden Johnston, retired from football, leaving only freshman walk-on kicker Jason Redding. Redding has a long of 42 yards this season, but he’s also missed from 33 yards and had a 42 yarder blocked by USC... and that’s why Utah went for it on 4th and 7 while up two touchdowns in the 1st quarter.

Summary

This just isn’t a good matchup for the Cal defense. Utah can run the ball, throw the ball, and do pretty much whatever they want with the ball (well, except maybe not kick the ball). The team that gave the Utah offense the most trouble this year was USC, who didn’t really slow Utah down, but has an elite defensive line that was able to dominate Utah’s offensive line and stuff Utah in or near the red zone, frequently forcing Utah to settle for short field goals. This is not a strategy I expect to work for Cal. It’s just hard for me to imagine a path to victory over Utah that doesn’t involve Utah shooting themselves in the foot; turning the ball over in the red zone or giving up some defensive touchdowns. This is Cal’s toughest matchup of the season.