Defense has the been the calling card of the Utah Utes since they joined the Pac-12. They’re known as an aggressive attacking front backed up with some talented players, several of whom have ended up playing on Sundays over the years. That defense was on display last year in its matchup with the Washington State Cougars. Were it not for the seven turnovers that the Cougar defense forced, setting up our offense with great field position en route to a 33-25 win, the Utah defense may have been the story.
Utah’s answer to the Air Raid was to overwhelm the blocking scheme with the blitz, particularly in the interior, between the guards. They threw a few twists and cross dog blitzes at the Cougar offensive line. While only registering one official sack, the Ute pressure forced several incompletions and mistimed throws, as well as putting Luke Falk on his back on a number of occasions.
Let’s take a look at some of those blitz packages.
Utah set their defensive tone early. This is Wazzu’s second offensive snap, and Utah brings seven, one of which is the free safety who ends up blowing through the A-gap. Jamal Morrow reduces one of the blitzers by running a shoot route, forcing the outside linebacker to peel off and cover him.
In addition to the safety heat, Utah twists the nose and the middle linebacker, sending the nose at the center to occupy him, and hoping to get the linebacker past the right guard. The blitz doesn’t get a sack, but it certainly gets home as Luke takes a shot to the stomach and ends up on the turf. It also forced Falk to throw off his back foot and a little bit early, causing an incompletion on the play. The blitz puts the Utah secondary in cover zero; there is no intermediate level help from the linebackers in zone coverage, and there’s no safety over the top. It’s a gamble, but in this case it pays off, and one could make the argument that it paid off throughout the game as WSU was never really able to get behind the Utah defense for a big play—the longest pass completion was 25 yards.
On the next play, Utah twists the nose and middle linebacker again, and throws a delay blitz by both outside linebackers as well. We get a good look at it from the end zone camera on a replay.
First off... um... Jamal....... you good?
The delay stunt here by the outside linebacker is a nice little wrinkle. He’s got the running back to his side, so he has to be aware of Morrow going out for a route. When Jamal goes away from him, he trails and looks to go through A-gap, following Donovan Thompson on the blitz. He can still maintain his coverage if Jamal leaks out to the opposite, but since Morrow’s... uh... taking a break, that frees up the outside linebacker to chase Falk. Falk rolls away, which negates the outside linebacker, who was working in slowly anyway. Luke ends up throwing this one away, which forces a punt.
The Utes show a nice little variation on a cross dog blitz here, exchanging a linebacker and a defensive end.
Utah is showing six in the box, but only ends up rushing four as the two ends drop off into coverage areas. Jamal Morrow is the F, and he’s set to Falk’s left, but his blocking responsibility is the one Ute at linebacker level, so he’s going to have to cross Falk’s face to get there. Not a huge deal, and it’s something pretty common for backs in pass protection. That gives Cole Madison the outside linebacker to the bottom of the screen, and BJ Salmonson gets the man inside of him. Salmonson is completely focused on his assignment, and is not expecting the blitzing linebacker to run straight at him. That’s enough to cause him to lose his feet. The end then loops inside the blitz, where Morrow does a fantastic job of cutting him down, learning from his previous mistake. The problem is that the blitzer now has a free run to the quarterback because Salmonson is on the ground. Falk, somehow, manages to throw this one away instead of taking the sack.
Of course, the risk you take with the blitz is that if the offense beats it, your secondary is spread pretty thin. That was the case with WSU’s first touchdown last year. Falk gets the ball out of his hand before the blitz can get home, and it turns into a Tavares Martin, Jr touchdown.
Utah brings the house on third and medium, rushing seven and leaving their DBs in cover zero with no help underneath. The Utes actually get a rusher coming free here as six blockers can’t account for all seven rushers. No tricks by the defense on this one either. It’s just a straight seven man rush, here we are, block it if you can. WSU runs H-Corner, which creates a natural rub for Martin and he gets the final few yards after the catch to put it in the end zone.
One of the reasons Utah decided to commit to the blitz was because of the quarterback they were coming after. Luke Falk was never known for his mobility or escapability. He beat the blitz by diagnosing it and delivering the ball before the blitz could get home. This year, Gardner Minshew is a horse of a different color. He will beat the blitz with his feet, and if Utah decides to go cover zero behind it, I would not be surprised to see Uncle Rico running for some chunk yardage.
Or does Utah dial it back? USC sent a fair number of blitzes, but largely rushed four or five and played zone behind it, and Minshew did well against it, throwing for 344 yards. A bit of a rock and a hard place for the opposing defense, but that’s what we like to see.
Let the chess match begin.