by Justin Adams | Perhaps it’s fitting that Utah’s first game of the season wound up being a microcosm of the disaster-filled year known as 2020. Delayed two weeks due to an outbreak on the team that disrupted practice, an injury to the starting quarterback in the first quarter, a handful of untimely turnovers, ESPN’s cameras going down. Add in the fact that Utah is probably playing its youngest team ever. Add in the fact that Utah’s first game of the season is against the best team they’ll play all year. Mix that all up and it’s a recipe for a disaster. But was it a disaster? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
Getting in a Rhythm
The most important thing for a team to do in their first game is to establish a rhythm. String together few sustained drives. Connect on multiple passes in a row. Get your players comfortable.
In that regard, the game actually started out pretty well. The team did go three-and-out on its first possession but turned things around with a drive that resulted in a field goal on their next possession. Things were looking good during their third possession as they once again marched into scoring position, but an errantly thrown screen pass sailed into the arms of a USC defender. Turnover.
Then bad led to worse the next time they touched the ball. The USC defense was able to get to Cam Rising and force a sack-fumble which resulted in a USC touchdown. More importantly for them, it knocked Rising out of the game.
In comes senior graduate transfer Jake Bentley. Any rhythm or momentum the Utah offense had up until that point gets lost. I have no idea how much Utah’s offensive game plan is quarterback dependent; maybe subbing in Bentley for Rising doesn’t change anything at all, but it certainly appeared to, as five of the Utes’ next six possessions were three plays or less.
This could have easily been a much different game if Rising had never gone down. Or even if Bentley had been prepped as the starter during practice the previous week. But that’s the nature of the game. It’s no excuse, but I think it’s fair to say that this team may be much better than what it indicated last night.
Too Many Options?
Finding a rhythm as an offense isn’t just about the quarterback though. Running backs and receivers also usually need a few touches to get going in a game. In that way, Utah’s relative wealth of offensive weapons may be both a blessing and a curse. If there are so many players deserving of a few touches, it may be impossible to get any one player enough touches to maximize their potential.
Keep in mind, this game didn’t even include Britain Covey (who was reportedly out with a hamstring issue), so that’s another player to share the pie with going forward.
Maybe the most important section of that pie is the running back distribution. The team has three backs that coaches really like in Devin Brumfield, Jordan Wilmore and Ty Jordan. Utah has always been at its best when it has a workhouse running back. They probably don’t need to go that far, but going from a 3-way split to a 2-way split may be beneficial.
Given that the team has a handful of wide receivers, two to three tight ends and at least three running backs that they want to get involved, I was curious to see a breakdown of what formations the team utilized throughout the game. By formations, I mean personnel groupings, or how many running backs, wide receivers and tight ends were on the field for a play. I’m not talking about what side of the field someone was on or if the receivers were in a bunch formation, etc.
Making a note of what formation Utah is in each play while watching live is a bit of a challenge. They’ll often line up tight ends out wide, then shift them back to the line of scrimmage right before the snap. Or they’ll line up a running back out wide, then motion them into a backfield for a handoff or play action pass. I ultimately decided to classify formations by where players are on the field, rather than what their position designation is on the roster. So if Brant Kuithe lines up away from the line of scrimmage, I count him as a wideout. I “measure” the position counts before any shifts or motion take place. So with those caveats, here’s what I learned about Utah’s personnel decisions.
By my count, Utah had three main formations, which it ran on 44 out of the 54 plays which I was able to observe (I missed a few due to the TV cameras going out). The most heavily used formation (18 plays) was a two tight end set, with one running back and two wide receivers. The second most-used formation (16 plays) included one running back and four wide receivers, although over 40 percent of these came on the last two drives when Utah was in pass-heavy mode. The third formation (10 plays) included one running back, three wide receivers and one tight end.
The two tight end set ended up being the Utes’ most productive formation, averaging five yards per play. What I found interesting is that, while you might expect this formation to be utilized to take advantage of Kuithe and Fotheringham as receiving tight ends, Utah actually went with run plays on 14 of the 18 times they lined up like this.
On the flip side, when Utah trotted out one of the other two formations, which featured three and four wide receivers respectively, they ran a pass play 90 percent of the time.
If that trend continues, opposing defenses will know what’s most likely coming at them before the ball is even snapped.
Normally, I would compare Utah’s performance to some of their previous matchups with USC. Or maybe compare Bentley’s numbers to that of other Utah QB’s in season openers. But given the nature of this season in general, and this game in particular, I don’t know that it’s possible to draw any meaningful conclusions from such comparisons.
One thing I’d like to note is that Samson Nacua’s touchdown catch (the only offensive TD of the night) moves Nacua into a tie for 2nd-most touchdowns by a Utah receiver in the PAC-12 era with 11. The other player was Kenneth Scott. With three to four games left this season and all of next year, Nacua is well-positioned to pass Dres Anderson, who had 17 touchdowns during his Utah career.
If you liked this article, you’ll love our preseason analysis in the first installment of the Chart ‘Em Up series. Read that here
Photo by Harry How | Getty Images