Andy Ludwig’s job description as Utah’s offensive coordinator was framed in September 2018, while he worked at Vanderbilt.
Utah was coming off a 21-7 loss to Washington, and receiver Britain Covey was among those citing the offense’s lack of identity. Asked then what he hoped for in an offense, Ute coach Kyle Whittingham spoke of avoiding turnovers, running the ball with a physical aura and still having “big-play capability” in the passing game.
That sounds a lot like what Ludwig’s offense has delivered this year for the No. 7 Utes, beginning his second stint with the program. So in Whittingham’s 15th season, is this the offense he always wanted?
“I love what we're doing offensively,” Whittingham said Monday during his weekly news conference. “I think we had very similar results last time Andy was here [2005-08].”
The offense’s ability to control the ball and score points is “a great complement to our defense, and they play off each other,” Whittingham said, describing himself as “very pleased so far. You never make your final analysis until after the season, until you have a whole body of work, but so far it’s been pretty good.”
NO. 7 UTAH AT ARIZONA
Saturday, 8 p.m.
Ludwig’s return may be erasing the biggest asterisk on Whittingham’s career ledger, how he was unable to find a consistent offense. With the offense playing its part, Utah (9-1, 6-1) can earn a program-record seventh Pac-12 win Saturday at Arizona and may need an eighth victory next week vs. Colorado just to secure another South championship.
Utah's formula reflects Whittingham's preferred approach, with the bonus of a passing game that's even more efficient than he could hope, amid Ludwig's judicious use of it.
Utah is No. 1 in the conference and No. 25 in the country is rushing yards at 207.1 per game. The Utes rank No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 8 nationally in passing efficiency, a statistic that disregards the volume of attempts. Utah also is No. 2 in the Pac-12 with a plus-10 turnover margin and Huntley has thrown only one interception in 209 passes, although the offense has lost fumbles lately.
Opponents’ being preoccupied with stopping running back Zack Moss have created downfield passing opportunities for quarterback Tyler Huntley, now being marketed by the school as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Ludwig’s scheme asks a lot of the quarterback, compared to the passing game championed by the previous offensive coordinator, Troy Taylor, which relied more on the receivers to read the defense and find openings, and Huntley has responded well.
The Utes are thriving without a dominant offensive line, although that group is improving. Huntley is adept at avoiding sacks and Moss needs little running room to make an impact. Ludwig also has been creative with the running game, such as using traditional option plays in Saturday’ 49-3 win over UCLA.
Utah is No. 3 nationally in time of possession at nearly 35 minutes. That number reflects the success of both the offense and defense on third-down plays; the offense is No. 15 in the country is converting those plays into first downs (48%) and the defense is No. 17 in getting off the field on third down (31.5%).
Ludwig is adding to a phenomenal record as a Utah assistant coach. The Utes are 46-15 with him as the play-caller, having won 30 of the last 32 games — including the 13-0 season of 2008.
He coached in the Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama to conclude that season, but Ludwig already was headed elsewhere. He had taken a job at Kansas State, although he ended up at California a couple of months later. It is worth wondering how the program would have evolved if Ludwig had never left, although he couldn’t have known Utah would be invited to join the Pac-12 two years later, with accompanying staff salary increases.
Records for Utah’s play-callers in the Kyle Whittingham era:
Andy Ludwig – 46-15 (2005-08, '19)
Aaron Roderick – 33-12 (2009-10, ’15-16)
Troy Taylor – 16-11 (2017-18)
Dave Christensen – 9-4 (2014).
Norm Chow – 8-5 (2011).
Dave Schramm* – 6-1 (2009).
Brian Johnson – 5-7 (2012).
Dennis Erickson – 5-7 (2012).
* – Roderick replaced Schramm during the 2009 season.
The move to the Pac-12 would have been difficult for any offensive coordinator, so the fan base may have become dissatisfied with Ludwig. Even after the Sugar Bowl, there was not widespread worry that his departure would hurt the program.
Ludwig became more valued in his absence from Utah, while working at Cal, San Diego State, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt. Whittingham used eight play-callers in 10 seasons, counting Aaron Roderick’s two stints.
That’s not to completely discredit their work. Norm Chow helped manufacture an 8-5 record with a fill-in quarterback in Utah’s first Pac-12 season. Dennis Erickson upset No. 5 Stanford. Dave Christensen got the Utes to bowl eligibility after two losing seasons. Roderick went 19-7 in his second phase. Taylor worked around season-ending injuries to Moss and Huntley as the Utes won their first Pac-12 South title, and he’s now a national FCS Coach of the Year candidate in his first season at Sacramento State, with the Hornets positioned to share the Big Sky Conference championship.
Even so, Ludwig has proven to be an upgrade, or at least a better fit with Whittingham. It helps that Ludwig inherited Moss and Huntley, but he also has made them more effective, even with a retooled offensive line.