Utes' move to put Jaylon Johnson on Oregon’s star receiver becomes game-changing strategy

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. Utah Utes host the Oregon Ducks, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday Nov. 10, 2018.

Utah’s coaches call it “star coverage,” a scheme made famous when former Ute defensive back Eric Weddle shut down Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson in a 2005 bowl victory.

In Saturday's episode, Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson played the role of Weddle against Oregon receiver Dillon Mitchell, just in time to preserve the Utes' 32-25 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Johnson's breakup of quarterback Justin Herbert's short pass intended for Mitchell on a fourth-and-5 play at the Utah 45-yard line halted Oregon's drive with 4:39 remaining. The Ute offense managed to kill all but the last 15 seconds, before Matt Gay kicked his sixth field goal of the game.

The strategy of moving Johnson around the field, wherever Mitchell lined up, “paid off for us,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

Utah typically positions its cornerbacks on the left and right sides of the field, regardless of the opponent's formation. Ute junior Julian Blackmon probably doesn't deserve all of the blame for Mitchell's eight catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Mitchell made some remarkable catches, including one that came when he reached over Blackmon's back and grabbed the ball along the sideline for a 17-yard play on third down, sustaining Oregon's touchdown drive to begin the third quarter.

Yet it's true that Oregon usually positioned Mitchell on Blackmon's side, and he didn't catch a pass after the middle of the third quarter, when a field goal pulled the Ducks to within 19-17. That coincides with Utah's move to have Johnson defend him.

Oregon punted on its next three possessions, although the Ducks took a 25-22 lead midway through the fourth quarter after blocking a punt, leading to Herbert's 3-yard touchdown pass to running back Travis Dye.

After the Utah offense responded with a go-ahead touchdown, the Ute defense was in a similar position to November 2016 against Oregon. That's when the Utes went ahead in the last three minutes, only to have Herbert answer with a drive that ended with a winning TD pass to Darren Carrington II with two seconds left.

This time, Dye's 18-yard run took the Ducks to the 50-yard line. Ute defensive end Maxs Tupai's sack of Herbert for a 5-yard loss on second down was vital. After a short completion to Brenden Schooler, the Ducks gambled on fourth and 5. Herbert looked for Mitchell on the right side, but Johnson stepped in front and knocked away the pass.

Johnson leads the Utes with three interceptions this season, including one that he returned 100 yards for a touchdown against Stanford. His fourth-down breakup was as good as an interception, especially under the circumstances.

Mitchell produced receiving numbers similar to those of Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry last weekend in the Sun Devils' victory over Utah. But thanks to Johnson, Mitchell didn’t quite match Harry’s nine receptions.