Aside from Utah’s producing zero points in the first half and netting zero yards in the fourth quarter of the Pac-12 championship game, Andy Ludwig’s return as offensive coordinator has been successful.
He’s hoping for a satisfying ending in the Alamo Bowl vs. Texas on New Year’s Eve, after what happened Dec. 6 vs. Oregon in a 37-15 defeat. “We’ve got to play better on a big stage,” Ludwig said, “and there will be a lot of growth in this football game from that experience.”
Ludwig fulfilled his No. 1 job this year — utilizing running back Zack Moss, the school’s career rushing leader and the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. That’s what Ute coach Kyle Whittingham wanted and what everyone expected in January, with Ludwig promising “a premium commitment to running the football.”
Ludwig developed the Pac-12's No. 4-ranked offense, averaging 442.5 total yards. He has done so without a dominant offensive line. That was evident in Utah's short-yardage failures at various points of the season, notably the first possession of the conference title game.
Beyond maximizing Moss (without wearing him out), the bonus elements of Ludwig’s work have been helping Tyler Huntley deliver one of the best quarterbacking seasons in school history and his creativity in using receivers and tight end Brant Kuithe on sweeps.
Rushing statistics for Utah's receivers and tight end Brant Kuihe on sweeps:
Jaylen Dixon – 18 carries, 111 yards, two touchdowns.
Derrick Vickers – 18 carries, 93 yards, one touchdown.
Brant Kuithe – five carries, 73 yards, three touchdowns.
Demari Simpkins – eight carries, 43 yards, one touchdown.
Britain Covey – three carries, 22 yards.
Solomon Enis – one carry, 1 yard.
That package of plays originated from Ludwig’s desperation in 2007, when quarterback Brian Johnson was playing through a shoulder injury and the Utes were “trying to manufacture yardage,” Ludwig said.
Having consulted with Mark Speckman, now a UC Davis assistant coach and an acknowledged “godfather of the fly sweep,” Ludwig used those plays more extensively in recent stops at Wisconsin and Vanderbilt. Ludwig initially learned the package while working at Oregon in the early 2000s, when Speckman was the head coach at Willamette University, an NAIA school in Salem, Ore.
The receiver's sweep action deceives the defense, with the running back and offensive linemen going the other direction, and the package has complementary plays that “cause conflict with the defense,” Ludwig said.
“Everybody kind of puts their own spin on it,” Speckman said this week. “Andy does a very good job of sprinkling it in.”
Speckman has enjoyed seeing the fly sweep become part of NFL playbooks, after once being derided as high school or small-college strategy.
This expanded scheme is what Whittingham got in bringing back Ludwig, whose first Utah tenure ended with the 2009 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Before losing to Oregon, the Utes had won 25 of their last 26 games with Ludwig calling the plays. He couldn’t get them into the College Football Playoff or another New Year’s Six game with the most talented roster in school history, but Ludwig promises there’s more to come.
“We've made good progress,” Ludwig said. “I still think we're at the 1.0 version of the offense. It has grown a little bit each week, but there are still weeks when we put in something new and it's the first time the players have heard it. I just think that the second go-round, the second year in the system, will be cleaner than the first year.”
Ludwig, though, will be working in 2020 without three All-Pac-12 players: Moss, Huntley and left tackle Darrin Paulo. He’ll presumably decide between Cameron Rising and Jake Bentley as the quarterback and find a primary running back among Devin Brumfield, Jordan Wilmore and others. The offensive line should improve, even with the loss of Paulo — especially if junior college transfer Bamidele Olaseni, who has redshirted this season, lives up to expectations in his only season of Division I eligibility.
Moss said his willingness to play in the Alamo Bowl stemmed partly from how the coaching staff preserved him throughout the season, such as removing him from blowouts. Subtracting Utah’s loss at USC, where he carried the ball six times before injuring his shoulder, Moss has averaged 19.4 carries in 11 games, down slightly from last season. He also has caught 26 passes for 374 yards.
Moss has rushed for 1,359 yards, leaving him 160 yards short of John White’s single-season mark — one of the few school rushing records Moss doesn’t own.
With the Alamo Bowl as his 14th game, Huntley will become Utah’s first 3,000-yard passer since Mike McCoy in 1994. Ludwig “connected with him; I guess that’s the best word I can use,” Whittingham said. “Tyler has hung on every word, principle, philosophy that Andy brought to the table for him and assimilated it and just put it into action.”
Ludwig credits Huntley for wanting to learn, saying he “doesn’t say much in the meeting room, but his eyes are burning out of his sockets when you talk to him.”
Here's how Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley's 2019 season compares with those of Alex Smith in 2004 and Brian Johnson in 2008:
Smith – 12 games; 214 of 317 (67.5%), 2,952 yards, 32 touchdowns, four interceptions.
Johnson – 13 games; 268 of 384 (68.0%), 2,972 yards, 27 touchdowns, nine interceptions.
Huntley – 13 games; 205 of 278 (73.7%), 2,966 yards, 18 touchdowns, four interceptions.