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Utes looking to fix the red-zone issues that hampered them against Oregon State

A mix of playcalling and on-field execution cost the Utah football team

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham celebrates second half play as the University of Utah defeated the Arizona Sun Devils in Pac-12 action, 35-21 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Oct. 10, 2021.

The buzzword around the University of Utah football facility this week has been “execution.” A lack of execution in the red zone Saturday night cost the Utes points, and ultimately cost them a win and an opportunity to take a stronger grip on their lead in the Pac-12 South.

The raw numbers will tell you Utah went 6 for 8 in the red zone on Saturday night at Oregon State, but that figure belies the struggles the Utes endured inside the 20-yard line.

For starters, Kyle Whittingham does not consider field goals to be red zone “wins.” So while a pair of Jordan Noyes field goals accounted for six points, as far as Whittingham was concerned, Utah went 4 for 8 in the red zone.

Not good enough for the coach.

The bigger red zone problem in Corvallis during a 42-34 loss was that there were trips inside the 20 that resulted in zero points. More specifically, those two drives moved inside the Oregon State 5-yard line, only to end on failed fourth-down attempts at the 2.

“Two turnovers on downs in the red zone. If we score those two, we win,” All-Pac-12 junior tight end Brant Kuithe said Monday afternoon following a team walkthrough, “but we can’t fault anyone or anything specifically. The offense didn’t play well, the defense didn’t play well, we just have to learn from it.”

The lessons from last week involve a mix of playcalling, physicality, spacing and gap discipline.

What went wrong for the Utes against Oregon State?

With Utah leading, 17-14, in the second quarter, running back Tavion Thomas rushed up the middle for 6 yards to set up second-and-goal at the 2. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig then called short pass plays on second and third down, which fell incomplete to Britain Covey and fullback Joe Ludwig, respectively. Facing fourth-and-goal at the 2, analytics — and maybe the tone of the game — dictated Utah go for it.

So the Utes did.

Cam Rising hit Kuithe out in the flat, but he was immediately hit by Beavers defensive back Anton Julian at the 1-yard line for a turnover on downs. After viewing the film, Kuithe indicated Monday that based on how Oregon State’s defense played that sequence, it knew the pass was going to the flat.

“I think one of the times, we should have run the ball more,” Whittingham said Monday, referencing the first goal-to-go sequence that resulted in no points. “You can always question the calls. If they work, they’re great calls. If they don’t, you question them. I would like to see a little more physicality, to answer your question, inside the 5, in the red zone.”

While the game may have dictated Utah go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2, there is a case to be made that the Utes should have taken the points, taken a six-point lead, and gone and played defense with halftime approaching.

Down 42-31 in the fourth quarter and facing another goal-to-go situation, there was no choice but to make that a four-down sequence.

Micah Bernard’s three-yard run from the 5 set the Utes up with third-and-goal at the 2, but a designed keeper for Rising went nowhere. On fourth down, Rising’s pass to the left side, intended for Covey, was broken up by Alex Austin, ending Utah’s final threat.

Where can the Utes see improvement?

“On run plays, it’s gap discipline, just being able to trust the gaps,” Covey said. “We had two run plays (in the second quarter) that were stops because we had guys miss their gaps. In the red zone, it’s all about spacing. The one I dropped at the end, if Solo (Enis) were just 1 yard higher, because it was Solomon’s guy that hit me — if he’s 1 yard higher, there’s enough spacing. When it comes to running it’s gaps, when it comes to passing, it’s spacing.

“I actually thought the playcalling was fine in the red zone, it’s just one person would miss their assignment. You can’t afford that in the red zone because everything is so condensed.”

Utah’s red zone issues at Oregon State were a microcosm of what has been a season-long problem for an offense that is averaging 32 points per game.

No Pac-12 team has been inside the red zone more than Utah (37). In those 37 instances, the Utes have scored 28 times, a 75.7% conversion rate, which only ranks ninth in the Pac-12 and 110th nationally. Remember, though, Whittingham doesn’t consider field goals to be red zone wins, so if you eliminate Utah’s five field goals on the season, it has 23 touchdowns in those 37 trips, a conversion rate of 62.7%.

For what it’s worth, Utah ranks in the bottom quarter of the Pac-12 in both third-down (39.3%) and fourth-down conversion percentage (36.4%).

“Everything just has to speed up a little bit,” Rising said. “There’s not as much room for the defense to cover, so everything’s tightened up and there’s more to the situation because you are so close to the end zone.”

Added Covey: “I think that in the red zone, because everything is in such a tighter space, one mistake is magnified. If you look at probably four or five of those red-zone plays, whether they be routes that were open or a gap that should have been filled, there’s just one person that makes a mistake. That’s what it is, is just tightening up your job in the red zone.”

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