There is no question that the University of Utah offensive line was outplayed by the BYU defensive line on Saturday night.
The question is: why?
And the follow-up: can the Utes turn things around quickly?
Based on any metric or any eye test, a Utah offensive line is rarely on the losing side of a battle. On the rare occasion it does happen, it’s jarring.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham put the issues facing his offense on mental mistakes and blown assignments. His linemen were under duress, which means graduate transfer quarterback Charlie Brewer was under duress, which made it difficult to operate.
Two-time All-Pac-12 lineman Nick Ford, Utah’s starting center and therefore the anchor of an offensive line of which more is expected, cited a lack of experience along the line for some of the issues.
“On the field playing, it’s tough when you have a defense that’s shifting around and you’re a center trying to put your guys on point,” Ford said. “You’re trying to yell it as loud as you can, and you’ve got some people who can’t adjust as fast. What we wound up doing was calling one thing and living with it vs. changing it, because changing it on the fly is something a lot of experience is needed for. We just went back to the basics.”
Ford noting Utah’s lack of experience along the line is valid. He has played in 32 career games and started 21 straight, Braeden Daniels has started 17 times at left guard, and Simi Moala has started 18 times between the two tackle spots, but there are five offensive lineman spots, not three.
Left tackle Jaren Kump played in his sixth career game at BYU, but it was his first in a raucous, road environment after the Pac-12 didn’t allow fans last fall in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Backup left tackle Bam Olaseni doesn’t have a ton of game experience. Starting right guard Sataoa Laumea has played in seven career games and started six of them, but like Kump, made his season debut at BYU.
To make his point, Ford painted a picture of the offensive line set up at the line of scrimmage in a man-on-man blocking scheme.
The defensive player lined up with the left tackle winds up looping all the way around to the other end. The defensive player lined opposite Ford goes back to his original position on the left side, then there’s the defensive player on the right, who has no intention of going after the quarterback.
That player’s intention is to take the guard on that side into Ford, knock him off his line, then neither the guard nor Ford can pick up a defender coming free toward the quarterback Brewer.
On top of that, BYU is bringing a Cover Zero blitz, which means the Cougars are rushing six players, including two linebackers, or potentially seven players, including three linebackers.
“At that point, we don’t have enough people to block, which means they don’t have enough people in coverage,” Ford said. “It’s high risk, high reward. A couple of times, they got us, and a couple of times, we got them, and that’s just the general fundamentals of offensive line play that the general public doesn’t understand.
“If I were to teach them the basics and then throw a different defensive front, they would be completely shell-shocked.”
The question now begs, are these things fixable with a week of practice ahead of Utah facing San Diego State on Saturday (5 p.m., CBS Sports Network) in Carson, Calif.?
It is at least helpful that the offensive line is healthy and able to practice together. That was not the case for the entirety of fall camp as Kump and Laumea both missed the Sept. 2 opener with injuries before debuting at BYU.
Beyond Kump, Daniels, Ford, Laumea and Moala, Whittingham on Monday singled out Olaseni as playing well of late, with backup left guard Keaton Bills and backup center Paul Maile also deep in the mix. Maile kicked outside and started the opener at right guard with Laumea unavailable.
“It’s going to help get the physical and mental reps out on the field, and that’s why I’m talking about experience and adjusting on the fly,” Ford said of the offensive line gaining full collective health. “The more experience, the more reps in practice, the higher the chance you have to adjust on the fly. Having everyone back and going at full capacity is going to allow us to understand that certain things need to be done on the fly. When the ball is snapped, they could shift from odd (defensive fronts) to even, even to odd, they could drop half the defense, bring up half the defense and at that point, you can’t be vocal, you can’t say what’s what. You have to operate on the fly and trust who’s next to you.”