Of all the things Kyle Whittingham did to prepare for what’s happening in Utah’s glorious 2019 football season, a season in which the Utes are not just poised to qualify for the Pac-12 championship game, but to actually win it, one stands above the rest.
Getting Andy Ludwig.
The veteran offensive coordinator has stepped right in and groomed an attack this season that needed a shave and a haircut. It needed a sound mind, a steady hand and a savvy approach — and by savvy, we mean an ability to study out the available talent on the roster and then utilize that talent in the way that made the most sense.
It wasn’t exactly a call to solve the Riemann Hypothesis. But the previous season, at least at a few critical junctures, the guy running Utah’s lesser half made it seem as though it were.
Whatever Ludwig came in fixing to do, it had to fall within the acceptable view of Whittingham’s notion of what a Ute offense should do — move the ball down the field and into the end zone without putting his defense in vulnerable positions.
Ludwig couldn’t have crafted a better fit.
His previous 32 years of coaching, along with that available talent and that familiarity with the mind and will of the head coach, made all of that more a probability than a possibility.
The second Ludwig was hired, the Utes were going to be precisely where they are.
Here’s how we knew:
• The last time Ludwig ran an offense for Whittingham, the Utes won 13 games and lost none. He is now 23-1 and counting in his past two seasons at Utah, with 10 years wedged between them.
• Fifteen times prior to this season, Ludwig had coached a running back who gained 1,000 yards or more, including two in his earlier stint at Utah. When Ludwig coached Melvin Gordon at Wisconsin, the back gained 2,587 yards and scored 29 touchdowns in his junior season. Make it 16 now, with Zack Moss having rushed for 1,158 yards and 14 TDs so far this year.
• Ludwig is a quarterback soother. He not only coached up guys like David Carr and Kyle Shurmur at various stops in the past, he was the primary mentor for Brian Johnson when the former Ute transformed himself from a raw athlete into a football maestro, getting to the point where the coordinator and the quarterback were synced up enough for Johnson to be left to call and adjust plays almost at will. That kind of grasp of an offense doesn’t just happen. It comes from the sound communication and instruction Ludwig offered.
The same evolution has happened and is happening with Tyler Huntley, who this season is blowing through a ceiling that no longer exists. He is second in the nation in completion percentage (75 percent), third in yards per pass attempt (11.2), fifth in passing efficiency (187.6), seventh in yards per completion (14.9). There are just four quarterbacks ahead of Huntley in ESPN’s Total QBR — Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Fields, Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts, Heisman candidates, all.
Huntley had been progressing in a bump-and-skid sort of way in his previous years at Utah, but Ludwig has helped refine him to where he fully gets what he’s doing, using his intellect and experience to avoid costly errors — Whittingham loves this — and deliver the ball when and where and to whom it should be delivered. In 232 throws, 178 of them have landed in his intended targets’ hands. Only two have been picked.
“He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country,” Whittingham says.
And a bonus: Huntley spins the ball about as tight and pretty as any of those QBs, although Ludwig can’t take much credit for that.
As it’s turned out, the coordinator’s offense ranks ninth nationally in yards per play (6.95), 13th in third-down conversions (48.5 percent), and second in time of possession (35:04), another number Whittingham relishes, considering that the longer the offense is on the field, the more rest his defense gets.
Great as that defense is, leading the nation in rushing stoppages and ranking third in total D, this is the first year anyone can remember when the better half isn’t overwhelming the lesser. In nine games this season, the Utes have scored at least 30 points. That hasn’t happened since … 2008, the last time You-Know-Who was running the offense.
When Whittingham hired Ludwig, he predicted “a seamless transition.”
He got so much more than that.
After spinning the OC’s door at Utah enough times to count each ouster, each rotation on the bare knuckles of two clenched fists, Whittingham finally matched the substantial player talent he had with a confident pilot possessing the offensive aptitude and acumen to make the most of it.
Whittingham got a coordinator who’s been around long enough not to have to try to prove to everybody how imaginative he is, or how compliant he is. He got a coordinator who wouldn’t tick him off. He got a coordinator who mirrors … him.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.