Utes play slowly on purpose and that has them feeling fresh as they prepare to face USC

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) dives for the first down last Saturday in a 31-0 win over Idaho State. Moss ran for 140 yards last season against USC, the Utes' opponent Friday night in Los Angeles.

A comedian once described football as short segments of violence, in between committee meetings. The description was more accurate when huddling was a standard part of the game.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham believes in that old-school approach. In an era of fast-paced football, with many offenses designed to run plays as quickly as possible, the No. 10 Utes are defying the trend. They huddle frequently, effectively shortening games for both their offensive and defensive players.

Whittingham is convinced that strategy helps his team — especially during a short week leading up to a Friday game, as in the case of Utah’s Pac-12 opener at USC.

Playing slower “reduces the wear and tear on your players,” Whittingham said Monday, during his weekly news conference. “That's something that matters. People say it doesn't matter. It does matter.”


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Utah used a no-huddle, fast-paced offense in 2014, when Whittingham hired Dave Christensen as his offensive coordinator. Whittingham dialed back the tempo in the middle of that season, however, and has stuck with a more traditional approach since then, with three subsequent play-callers. Current coordinator Andy Ludwig’s scheme requires substitutions of personnel groups and pre-snap decisions by quarterback Tyler Huntley. Although the Utes have not been penalized for delay of game this season, they do take their time between plays.

Utah’s defense has played its part in getting extra rest, as well. The Utes have shut down BYU, Northern Illinois and Idaho State in the second halves of their three wins, repeatedly forcing punts and getting takeaways. The result is the Utes have defended only 159 plays, the fewest in the country for a team that has played three games. Idaho State’s offense ran only 48 plays, gaining 116 yards.

Utah’s 341 total plays are markedly fewer than USC’s 437 plays. Factoring in how Utah’s starters were on the sidelines for most of Saturday’s second half of a 31-0 win over ISU, Whittingham said, “We feel pretty fresh.”

After carrying the ball 29 times vs. BYU, Ute running back Zack Moss had 28 total carries in the last two games, helping to preserve him. Whittingham hopes to have offensive linemen Orlando Umana and Johnny Maea available after they missed those two games with injuries. Ute safety Julian Blackmon also missed Saturday’s 31-0 win over Idaho State and is questionable this week.

Ever since Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, Whittingham has labeled USC the “benchmark” of the conference.

The Utes have competed favorably with the Trojans, winning the past three games in Salt Lake City. Utah’s challenge remains winning in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

“We've made progress,” Whittingham said. “We're certainly more equipped now than we were to compete with them than we were in '11.”

Only twice in eight meetings, however, have the Utes been overwhelmed by USC. In 2012, the Trojans led 38-21 before the Utes added a last-minute touchdown. Yet USC led by only three points after three quarters. The Trojans won 42-24 in Los Angeles in 2015, although the No. 3 Utes were ahead 14-7 before “throwing three interceptions to the same linebacker,” as Whittingham accurately recalled.

With his constant emphasis on recruiting, Whittingham said of the Trojans, “They've got talent. It's SC. Nothing different than what we've experienced for what, nine years now?”

Whittingham added, “It's challenging. They have their pick of the litter down there in southern Cal, a fertile recruiting ground. They really draw a 30-mile radius around their campus, and that's where they recruit.”

The Trojans also mix in some out-of-state athletes; former Bingham High School star Jay Tuefele is an anchor of USC’s defensive line.


Utah's records vs. Pac-12 South football teams as a conference member:

6-2 vs. Colorado

5-3 vs. UCLA

4-4 vs. Arizona

3-5 vs. USC

2-6 vs. Arizona State

20-20 vs. South (14-18 vs. North).