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Coach’s Corner: The Utah Test

Can #SpeedD rise to the challenge one more time before their final exam?

Utah v Oregon Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Information recall is a big deal in the education world. I teach World History, and my classes are closing up their unit on the Renaissance and the Reformation this week, so they’re due for a test in the very near future. They’ll see the typical questions about Humanism and plenary indulgences, how the Black Plague helped contribute to the start of the Italian Renaissance, and how the invention of the movable type printing press helped Martin Luther’s ideas spread like wildfire throughout the German countryside. But they’ll also see a question about social stratification in Ancient Mesopotamia, one about the Twelve Tables of Roman Law, and one about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Not because I’m trying to catch them off-guard—well, not only because of that—but because getting their brains to go back to that information regularly will help keep it fresh in their minds. Theoretically, that will help them access that information when it comes time for the North Carolina Final Exams at the end of the semester.

This Saturday, the Washington State Cougars will need to tap their previous knowledge as they face a Utah Utes offense that blends elements that #SpeedD has seen at various points throughout the season. This week will be a tough benchmark test before the final exam in Seattle two weeks from now.

The core of the Utah offense is the basic inside zone with the quarterback often reading the backside defensive end. We’ve seen this in various forms throughout the season from Arizona, Oregon, and others. It has become the base running play for the majority of teams in college football. In this particular play, the backside read from the quarterback, Tyler Huntley, is a give read as the H-back slides across the formation to slow the defensive end on his way to an arc block.

Since they run inside zone, they of course run outside zone as well. It’s simple stuff, but almost everything they do comes off this action or the outside zone. Notice the slot receiver to the left side of the formation. He’s running a bubble behind a vertical from the outside receiver. That hints at an RPO scheme built into the play.

We have the base of the offense, let’s get into the fun stuff.

The next immediate threat from the zone look is the quarterback running the ball. The Utes have Tyler Huntley running point in their offense, and while he’s not on the same level as Khalil Tate—First of His Name and Lord of the Twelve Kingdoms—he is a pretty good athlete in his own right. Utah will send him on designed runs in addition to their zone read game.

Utah Offensive Formation: H-Trips Left.

Standard zone-style run look. By putting trips to one side and having the back opposite, it tips heavily towards something going to the defense’s right, and UCLA slid their linebackers in that direction to adjust. Their Will linebacker is even with Huntley at the snap, in a 00 alignment.

UCLA is doing its best to take away that zone run to the bottom of the screen. So of course Utah runs away from strength.

The Play: 16 Counter-Trey. Utah pulls both the left guard and the left tackle around to trap and lead for Huntley, after he had faked the handoff to the running back, Zack Moss, to get the UCLA linebackers scraping further away from the running lane. UCLA is actually running a scrape exchange* here, which explains the alignment of the linebackers. They’re trying to force a keep read on a potential zone read, hoping that the linebacker will come unblocked and meet Huntley in the hole. Unfortunately for UCLA, a scrape exchange doesn’t work super well against a pulling lineman.

*We talked about scrape exchanges a few weeks back when we broke down Arizona’s run game. Head there if you need a refresher.

The next step up the progression of the Utah offense is the RPO. The Utes run RPOs a bit more often than does Colorado or Arizona, so it’s something that the Cougar defense will have to be aware of on virtually every snap. Huntley is still a pretty young quarterback, so confusing his reads could pay dividends for the defense. On the flipside, Utah looks to keep its reads pretty simple and clean to give Huntley the best chance to succeed.

Utah Offensive Formation: Trio Left.

UCLA’s box defenders line up in a nearly identical alignment as the previous play we saw, which means they must have come to the conclusion during the week that they wanted to take away Moss as much as possible and make Huntley beat them in the run game. UCLA also rolls its secondary coverage to the three-receiver side, which puts the Utah receiver, Bryan Thompson, in a one-on-one situation with the press corner.

The Play: Inside Zone + Backside Slant

Huntley is reading the same linebacker who was scrape exchanging in the play above, which it looks like UCLA may be doing again. The problem here is that the linebacker has to wait until Huntley commits to running, which is not part of the design of the play. So the linebacker stands flat-footed, which tells Huntley that Thompson will have a nice window to run through on his slant route. Huntley correctly takes the pass option and delivers the ball on time to Thompson for a nice chunk of yardage.

Utah’s backs are also a threat in the passing game. To give you an idea of how the Ute passing game operates, Oregon transfer Darren Carringtonwho may not be 100% coming into Saturday—leads the team with fifty-eight receptions. Second to him? That would be Zack Moss, who is the lead running back, with twenty-four. Taking into account the difference in volume of passing, the Utah backs catch a roughly similar percentage of passes as do WSU’s. But Utah’s style of getting the ball to those backs more closely mirrors what Oregon does.

Utah Offensive Formation: Green

That’s probably not what Utah calls it, but it is identical to the two-back Air Raid formation.

UCLA is again showing a 6-man box, but because there are now two running backs, their linebackers are unable to cheat to the opposite side of a zone back. However, UCLA is blitzing a linebacker to the single-receiver side, which puts the safety on that side in man coverage on the running back, so he drives down hard at the snap to linebacker level.

The Play: 929 Slant H-Wheel

The crashing safety actually makes this play work. When he drops down to linebacker level, it puts him directly in the path of the receiver running a slant. As he turns to react to the running back’s wheel route, he runs slam into the corner chasing the slant. It’s not a pick play if the two defenders run into each other. Utah even gets the non-blitzing linebacker caught up in the clutter as he’s scraping to the running back on the outside zone play action. The UCLA defender responsible for the running back falls down, and Troy McCormick is left wide open streaking down the sideline for seventy-five yards and six points.

We have one more example of Utah’s play action from the zone look, and we turn to one of my favorite non-Air Raid plays.

Utah Offensive Formation: Ace Left Open. Note the alignment of the receiver to the bottom of the screen. Very tight to the offensive linemen.

UCLA is in a 4-3 Under look, with five defenders on the line of scrimmage, but the linebacker at the line drops to linebacker level right before the snap. It seems like they were anticipating a pass here, and the secondary is playing man coverage across the board with a single-high safety.

The Play: 825 Z-Slide

From under center, Huntley play fakes the inside zone to the tight end and the single receiver, then rolls back to his right. The tight receiver goes across formation, behind the offensive linemen, and slips out the back door into the flat. The two receivers on that side had run off their coverage defenders, turning this into a footrace between the receiver and his cover corner. The corner has to navigate his way around and through all seven of his teammates in the box, giving the receiver a big advantage in finding open space in front of the quarterback. It’s an easy pitch and catch for Utah. Unfortunately, a lineman either gets the wrong call or mistimes his release downfield, and is called for being ineligible downfield.

I used to run this on the goalline out of a two tight end set. The inside tight end would slide across the formation and slip into the end zone, usually wide open. At one point about midway through the season, our tight end that we used for this set had five receptions for nine yards and four TDs. It was almost a guaranteed touchdown because it’s hard for a high school defender to track a receiver all the way across a formation and looking through eighteen bodies. Even at the college level, it’s a tough route to cover.

So far this season, with one notable exception, #SpeedD has made the grade. Statistically, they have been near the top of the charts not only in the Pac-12, but in the entire country. They have the player that should be the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in Hercules Mata’afa, and playmakers surrounding him at every level of the field. Alex Grinch has turned a question mark coming into the season into an unquestioned strength of the team, which is saying something considering Mike Leach and Luke Falk are running the show on the other side of the ball. The Cougs will have to rely on their prior knowledge if they want to hold the Utes in check on Saturday evening, but happily for them, they have a lot of successful material from which to study.