by Daniel Olsen | It’s hard to believe that Utah’s tenth season in the Pac-12 is (finally) upon us. It’s been quite a ride since 2011, as the original BCS busters moved up to the big leagues. The Utes have gone from losing seasons in two of the first three years to cementing themselves as a conference contender, making it to the championship game each of the last two years.
To commemorate Utah’s tenth season in the conference of champions, we will analyze their improvement over time.
Steady Improvement on Offense
While Utah’s record has fluctuated quite a bit over its first nine years in the Pac-12, the effectiveness of its offense has grown slowly but consistently over that time.
When you look at total offense per game, you can see a stark upward trend line. In their first 16 games against P5 opponents after joining the Pac-12, the Utes failed to eclipse 400 yards. In the last two years, the Utes have reached that mark in 11 of 21 games. Additionally, of Utah’s ten best games in terms of total offense (against P5 opponents), six were from 2018 or 2019 and eight out of ten were from the last four years.
When you look at first downs gained each year, you also see consistent improvement just about every year, regardless of the team’s record.
The Running Game
The key for Utah’s offensive improvement has been a commitment to what it does best: control the trenches and establish the run.
I was very impressed, though not quite surprised, when I realized that Utah has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in all but one of its seasons in the Pac-12. The sole exception being 2012 when Bubba Poole and Kelvin York had a pretty even split in carries and finished with a combined 1,070 yards.
The team’s rushing attack has improved pretty consistently over the years as well, going from less than four yards per carry its first two years to now nearly averaging five in two of the last four years.
Utah has had a bunch of stud running backs, from Zack Moss and Devontae Booker to Joe Williams and John White. Is there one that stands above the rest? If we’re just looking at statistics, then each back has some pretty unique accomplishments.
John White continues to hold the title of most rushing yards in a season with 1519 (Devontae Booker’s just behind that with 1512 yards in 2014).
Joe Williams holds the title of highest yards-per-carry over the course of a season with 6.7 (Zack Moss comes in second at 6.1 during the 2018 season).
Joe Williams also rushed for the most yards in a single game, with his 29 carry, 332 yard, 4 touchdown masterpiece against UCLA.
How about 100 yard games? Zack Moss leads the way with 19, followed by Devontae Booker and John White who both had 14.
For much of Utah’s time in the PAC-12, fans have lamented that the only thing holding the team back has been a competent passing game. They’ve always had a good defense. They’ve always had a good run game. On the other hand, the passing game has been… inconsistent, to put it nicely.
From 2011 to 2018, Utah had a touchdown to interception ratio of only 1.54 (1.54 touchdowns thrown for every one interception) with the best single-season mark being 3.6 in 2014. Of course in 2019, Tyler Huntley had the most efficient year for a Utah quarterback ever as he posted a 4.75 touchdown to interception ratio.
In fact, in just about every passing category you could look at, Tyler Huntley’s 2019 season blows every other Utah quarterback in the Pac-12 out of the water. His 3,092 passing yards tops Troy Williams’ best total (2,757) as well as Travis Wilson’s (2,170). In fact, in 2015 Travis Wilson threw for 2,093 yards, almost exactly 1,000 fewer yards than Huntley in 2019, but on 13 more attempts. Huntley also completed more passes in a year than any other quarterback (220) despite having fewer pass attempts (301) than other quarterbacks in four other seasons.
Ironically, one of the least efficient seasons for a Utah quarterback came from Troy Williams in 2016, the year before coaches decided to hand the reins to Tyler Huntley (an unexpected and somewhat controversial decision at the time). In that season, Williams threw the ball 390 times, the most by any Utah QB in the Pac-12 era. Those 390 attempts produced 207 completions and 15 touchdowns. Those translate to Utah’s worst season for completion percentage (.5307) and the second-worst season for touchdowns per attempt (.0384).
To Rush or to Pass?
Occasionally, some Utah fans get a little envious of the high-scoring fast-paced offenses that are increasingly prevalent in college football. They are the kind that throw the ball 40-50+ times a game, score 60 points and get their highlights on Sports Center. That’s just never been the M.O. of a Kyle Whittingham-coached Utah team. Guess what? The stats justify it. The more “run-first” that Utah teams have been, the better they have performed.
Here you can see the difference in rushing attempts (red) versus pass attempts (blue) for the last nine seasons.
It’s interesting to note that Utah’s most successful season (2019) saw the biggest gap between rushing and passing attempts as they accumulated 270 more rushes than passes. The two seasons in which Utah’s passing and rushing attempts most closely approached parity: its two losing seasons in 2012 and 2013.
Of course, losing teams are more likely to pass the ball more as they try to catch up, while winning teams are more likely to rack up rushing attempts as they try to run the clock out. So you can either look at it as, “Utah wins more when they run more,” or “Utah runs more when they win more.” Either way, solid rushing numbers mean good things for this team.
(This season, I’ll be tracking pass/run plays in a way that accounts for game situation so we’ll be able to see a more accurate picture of Utah’s offensive philosophy.)
Furthermore, when Utah gains 200+ yards on the ground, they’re 26-7 (against P5 teams only). However, when Utah gains 300+ through the air, they’re just 4-6 (again, considering only P5 opponents).
What’s a Utah football article without a little defense?
Just as Utah’s offensive production has slowly improved over the course of the Pac-12 era, so it seems has the defense.
While the Utah defense held P5 opponents to under 200 yards just once in their first six years in the league, they’ve done so five times in the last three seasons. Furthermore, in the first six years, the Utah defense surrendered 400+ yards about 50% of the time against P5 teams (28/59 games). Since the 2017 season, they’ve only allowed opposing offenses to reach that mark less than a third of the time (10/32 times).
And now that we’ve introduced defense into the equation, let’s take a look at Utah’s yardage differential.
Of all the charts I put together for this article, this one might paint the most stark and encouraging picture for Utah fans. You can clearly see three periods within the Pac-12 era.
1. The first few years, in which Utah was outgained by opponents in all but a handful of games.
2. A period in the middle where it was a pretty even split, with neither side outgaining the other by absurd amounts.
3. And finally, a period comprising the last couple years in which Utah has outgained opponents all but a handful of times, and often by very large amounts.
Of course, Utah had probably its best senior class ever in 2019 so it’s no surprise that the numbers look so good for Utah the last couple years, and they’ll likely take a turn towards the median for a couple years as the team reloads/rebuilds. It seems unlikely that the team will return to anything resembling its first few years in the PAC-12 anytime soon.
Bend But Don’t Break:
One enduring aspect of Utah’s defense is that their ability to “bend but not break.” As in, there are games where they’ll give up plenty of yards, but they stiffen up when the opponent gets into the red zone and end up forcing a field goal attempt or a turnover. One way to measure this aspect of the defense is by looking at the opponent’s yards of offense per touchdown. The higher the number, the more yards the defense gives up before allowing a touchdown. Field position also plays into it as well.
In all of Utah’s time in the Pac-12, the defense has allowed 33,644 yards and 244 touchdowns (against P5 teams). That translates to 137.8 yards of offense per touchdown. In comparison, Utah’s offense has averaged 128 yards per touchdown in that same time frame. To be honest, I’m not sure if either of those marks would be considered good or bad relative to the rest of the college football field. It’s obviously good that Utah’s is lower than their opponents, but beyond that I would have to take a look at CFB-wide statistics. In the future, we could also look at how some of the heavyweights like Alabama/Clemson/Ohio State measure in this category.
But for what it’s worth, here’s how the Utah offense has fared in this category year-by-year.
Recruiting is a big part of college football. It’s not everything (as Utah’s ability to take lower-rated prospects and develop them into NFL talent has shown) but it sure doesn’t hurt to bring in more talented players to begin with. And the good news for Utah fans is the team has been improving in that department.
Because recruiting grades fluctuate each year based on a given team’s needs, I decided to take a look at Utah’s class ratings through the lens of a 3-year rolling average. What you find is that Utah’s recruiting has been steadily improving in every three-year period since the 2012-2014 period.
If you look at individual recruiting classes, the 2019 and 2020 classes are Utah’s highest-rated ever (.8612 and .8652, respectively), and 2020’s by quite a margin.
As much as Utah has improved the last two years, with back-to-back trips to the Conference Championship, fans can reasonably expect that the immediate future is even brighter.