In seven weeks, Utah’s rise in Pac-12 football likely will be recognized by the program’s first No. 1 forecast in the South in the official media preseason poll.
In eight years of conference membership, the Utes’ average finish in the Pac-12 is seventh place overall — disregarding the divisional alignment. A study of the eight-year statistical trends shows how much the team’s offensive performance has held back the Utes.
A former newspaper sportswriter who covered three programs in the conference and runs the @SportsPac12 Twitter account has compiled statistics in dozens of categories (accounting for all games, in and out of conference play). Nearly all of the data is favorable to Utah’s defense and critical of Utah’s offense. Here are selected examples, and how the Utes have addressed those areas:
Yards per offensive play
1. Oregon, 6.8 2. USC, 6.3 3. Arizona, 6.2 Stanford, 6.2 5. UCLA, 6. Washington, 6.0 7. Arizona State, 5.8 Washington State, 5.8 9. California, 5.7 10. Oregon State, 5.6 11. Utah, 5.4 12. Colorado, 5.2.
This is generally recognized as the best gauge of offensive production, disregarding the number of plays run in a game by high-tempo offenses. Yet even though the Utes have played at a slower pace than many Pac-12 teams, they rank low in yards per play.
That's partly, but not completely, a function of Utah's relying on the running game. The Utes improved slightly to 5.7 yards per play last season, although that average was dragged down by two games against Washington, the Pac-12's top defense.
Utah expects to be more productive in 2019 with returning players at most positions, although questions exist about the offensive line.
Opponent completion percentage
1. Utah, 57.0. 2. Colorado, 58.7. 3. USC, 59.1. 4. Oregon, 59.4. 5. Arizona State, 59.6. 6. Stanford, 59.8. 7. UCLA, 60.1. 8. Washington, 60.3. 9. California, 61.7. 10. Oregon State, 61.9. 11. Washington State, 62.1. 12. Arizona, 63.2.
The Utes have fielded outstanding secondaries, even prior to the Pac-12 era. Defensive backs such as Marcus Williams, Brian Allen, Marquise Blair, Corrion Ballard and Chase Hansen (now a linebacker), all currently on NFL rosters, have given Utah solid pass coverage in recent seasons.
Even with the losses of Blair and Ballard, the Utes’ secondary should be strong again in 2019. Junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson, junior slot corner Javelin Guidry and senior safety Julian Blackmon are NFL prospects, aided by Utah’s pass rush in defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley’s scheme.
1. Washington State, 291. 2. Oregon, 258. 3. USC, 244. 4. Arizona State, 209. 5. California, 205. 6. Washington, 201 7. Stanford, 195. 8. Arizona, 192. 9. UCLA, 185. 10. Colorado, 153. 11. Oregon State, 147. 12. Utah, 144.
The accompanying statistic is the number games won without a passing touchdown, and the Utes lead the league with 14 victories in eight seasons. Touchdowns count the same, regardless of how they’re scored.
It’s also true that the Utes have settled for a high percentage of field goals inside the 20-yard line, and more big plays in the passing game would help turn those drives into touchdowns. Quarterbacks Tyler Huntley and Jason Shelley combined for 17 touchdowns last season. Adding receiver Britain Covey’s two TD tosses, the Utes’ 19 touchdown passes were slightly above their Pac-12 average.
Former offensive coordinator Troy Taylor’s primary job was to improve Utah’s passing game, and he succeeded. Andy Ludwig, his successor, has overhauled the passing scheme with more structured routes for the receivers and more responsibility for the quarterbacks. Ludwig also is determined to maximize running back Zack Moss, saying in April, “This program is built around the tailback position.”
Interceptions returned for touchdowns
1. Arizona State, 17. 2. Arizona, Oregon and Utah, 16. 5. Stanford, 14. 6. Washington, 14 7. USC, 13. 8. California, 11. UCLA, 11 10. Washington State, 8. 11. Oregon State, 7. 12. Colorado, 6.
“Four and a score.” Former coordinator John Pease’s ambitious goal in every game was having his group create four turnovers and convert one of them into a defensive touchdown. It happened occasionally. The Utes have produced an annual average of two pick-sixes, with Hansen returning an interception 40 yards at Northern Illinois, Johnson sprinting 100 yards against Stanford and Blackmon going 27 yards for a score against BYU in 2018.
Expecting plays like those to occur every year is asking a lot. What’s clear is the Utes have succeeded in forcing takeaways ever since 2013, when they had only three interceptions all season — including one by Trevor Reilly on the final defensive play.
Fewest opponents’ first downs by rushing
1. Utah, 701. 2. Stanford, 772. 3. Washington, 791. 4. USC, 829. 5. Washington State, 843. 6. Arizona State, 848. 7. Colorado, 918. 8. California, 936. 9. Oregon, 957. 10. Arizona, 970. 11. UCLA, 1030. 12. Oregon State, 1,034.
Utah is tough against the run; that’s common knowledge. The tradition of strong defensive line play is rooted in the program, boosted by the Polynesian influence in Utah’s recruiting.
Utah’s 2019 line will be among the best in school history, featuring end Bradlee Anae and tackles Leko Fotu and John Penisini. Athlon Sports ranks Utah’s line No. 2 in the country, behind Auburn’s. Depth is among the factors that make Utah’s line so imposing, with coaches Lewis Powell and Sione Po’uha able to rotate players.
First downs by passing
1. Washington State, 1,724. 2. California, 1,277. 3. Arizona State, 1,242. 4. USC, 1,240. 5. UCLA, 1,209. 6. Oregon, 1,136. 7. Washington, 1,128. 8. Arizona, 1,124. 9. Oregon State, 1,112. 10. Colorado, 1,079. 11. Stanford, 1,046. 12. Utah, 902.
Moss’ workload will be a major topic in 2019. If Taylor’s task was to upgrade Utah’s passing scheme, Ludwig’s job description is to restore the running game as Utah’s offensive identity.
Yet there will be games when opposing defenses are so geared to stop Moss that the Utes will have to throw the ball effectively to convert third-down plays and sustain drives. That’s where Huntley’s passing comes into play, partly with a renewed emphasis on throwing to the running backs and tight ends.