by Justin Adams | The Utah Utes got their first win of the season Saturday night in a 30-24 victory over Oregon State. The old adage that ‘A win is a win’ remains true, but was little comfort to the Utah fans who came away from this game with a bad taste in their mouth. Despite the win, the Utes showed some of the same weaknesses that cost them games against USC and Washington (although they corrected one of them). Like I said last week, this season for Utah is less about wins and losses and more of a preview for 2021. So the question is, are the negative trends with this football team a result of the unique situation of the 2020 season, or something built into this team’s DNA?
Second Half Collapse
In every game this year, Utah has been unable to produce in the second half. In the first half, they’re averaging 207 yards of offense but just 142 in the second half. The offense has scored 47 points in the first half but just seven in the second half (not counting defense or special teams touchdowns).
There are a lot of variables that could explain this lack of production in the second half. It could be that this is a young team that doesn’t know how to finish games. It could be the lack of fans in the stadium to help keep the energy level up. It could be COVID-19 protocols that disrupted Utah’s preparation for the season. If it were any of those things, there wouldn’t be much concern about this trend continuing into 2021, but I fear the actual culprit is something that’s not unique to 2020: conservative play-calling.
In the first half against Oregon State, Utah ran 19 pass plays and 20 run plays. They had an almost perfect balance. That led to a solid 6.4 yards per play and a score on every first half possession aside from the end-of-half possession. In the third quarter, however, that balance shifted to a 15-6 advantage for run plays. In the fourth quarter, runs outnumbered passes 9-1 and the Utes averaged 2.2 yards per play.
Last week I pointed out how, after taking a 21-point lead into halftime against Washington, Utah ran the ball on 8 of its first 11 plays in the second half. Obviously that strategy backfired horribly last week so you’d think the coaching staff would have learned that lesson. Yet this week, after taking a 13-point lead with 7:45 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Utes ran the ball on 14 of the next 16 plays.
It would be one thing if Utah was trying to keep the clock churning by calling a creative mix of traditional runs, jet sweeps, bubble screens and designed quarterback runs. But instead, the vast majority of these second half rushing attempts were simple straight-up-the-middle plays. The most notable of which was three consecutive plays in which the team needed just one yard for a first down that would have practically sealed the game. On 2nd, 3rd and even 4th down the team ran the same straight-ahead run. They were stuffed every time. That’s a result of being 100% predictable.
People often talk about a defense trying to force their opponent into being one-dimensional. Utah’s opponents don’t need to worry much about that because the Utes seem committed to doing that themselves.
Again, I’m returning to something I’ve talked about for every game this season. I would love to look at other aspects of these games, but this issue remains so glaring that it needs to be addressed, again.
At the end of the Utes’ first drive of the game, I saw a tweet that remarked how the team was making a more concerted effort to get the ball to wide receivers (Covey and Vele both had a catch on the first drive). While not much, it seemed to be a good start considering the wide receivers had a grand total of five catches against Washington last week. Well, this week they improved that mark… to six catches. Covey had four. Enis and Vele both finished with one.
I feel like I’m beating a dead horse here, but averaging just over one catch by a wide receiver per quarter is not a recipe for success. To put it in perspective, our wide receivers are collectively averaging fewer touches per game than the wide receivers of the triple option team in the Air Force Academy (7.3 vs. 7.6).
I thought it would be interesting to compare this team’s touch distribution to that of last year’s team. I found that the wide receivers have gone from a 27% share of the team’s touches in 2019 to a 15% share this year. Meanwhile, the running backs and tight ends have increased from 63% to 71% and from 8% to 13%, respectively.
I know there’s been injuries in the wide receiver room and Jake Bentley hasn’t been very sharp. That’s no problem excuse. At the end of the day, it’s Andy Ludwig’s job to figure out a way to get the ball into the hands of all the team’s playmakers. Right now he’s neglecting a third of them.
On the bright side, the team figured out at least one side of this issue that I’ve been bringing up: consolidating RB touches to a workhouse back. True freshman running back Ty Jordan accounted for 29 of the 39 RB touches. This translated into 189 total yards, including 167 on the ground. That’s by far the most ever by a freshman Utah running back in the PAC-12 era. The next highest mark also belongs to Ty Jordan with 97 yards against Washington last week, followed by Zack Moss with 95 against San Jose State.
The fact that Utah has its next star running back in place now, with four years of eligibility remaining after this season, is probably the highlight of this shortened-season. Last year we were wondering if anyone would ever break Zack Moss’ rushing record. The fact that it now seems like the team’s very next running back will have a great shot at it is incredible.
Settling for Field Goals
I know a lot of fans were frustrated by the Utes’ inability to finish drives with touchdowns early in the game. What should have been a 21-point lead in the first quarter ended up being only a 9-point lead. But you know what? I’ll gladly take drives ending in field goals over drives ending in turnovers.
After giving the ball away five times against USC and four times against Washington, Utah was able to avoid any turnovers against Oregon State. If even just one of their turnovers against Washington had instead resulted in a field goal, that game would have been tied at the end of regulation. If one of their field goals against Oregon State had been replaced with a turnover, the Beavers could have gone for a game-tying field goal at the end of the game.
While the red zone troubles are a concern, it’s definitely an improvement over 4+ turnovers a game. I expect this young team will improve its red zone performance next season.
Featured image courtesy Scott G Winterton, Deseret News