Utah Offensive Scheme
Following a rough indoctrination to the Pac-12, Utah is starting to settle in on offense via a re-emphasis of its philosophical roots in a way that compliments its regional talent acquisition strengths and overall approach to football.
The Utes went 9-18 in their first three years in the conference under coach Kyle Whittingham and due in part to a lot of coaching flux, meandered away from some of the things that yielded so much success in their previous years in the Mountain West Conference.
Utah became too reliant on its quarterbacks early in its Pac-12 tenure and did so without the broader offensive firepower to achieve the desired results. It aggravated its challenges, and Travis Wilson had 16 interceptions against 16 touchdowns as a sophomore starter.
Since the start of the 2014 season, Whittingham's Utes are 7-4 in conference games including 2-0 this season, with a chance Saturday to not only end an ASU winning streak of 11 games dating to 1977, but take a two-game stranglehold lead in the Pac-12.
The Utes are back to an ultra-heavy reliance on their ground game (62 percent of plays from scrimmage), and give the ball to their outstanding senior tailback Devontae Booker an astounding 28 times per game, which is seven carries more than any other Pac-12 rusher gets. Though they operate out of the shotgun, the entire approach to offense is ball control, and generating manageable, on-schedule third downs via reliable, low-risk early down play calling. And when they get those short third downs, they're likely to still run the ball far more often than pass it.
Utah lacks the big play capability of a lot of other teams in the conference, but doesn't need it to win because it has great special teams, converts red zone opportunities into points more often than any other team in the league (95.2 percent) and leads the league in turnover margin at plus-10 in just five games.
The pieces fit together in a way that hasn't typically been the case, and the result is Whittingham has gone from being a coach some believed to be on the proverbial hot seat, to one of the hottest coaches in football and a name a lot of USC fans are throwing around as an intriguing replacement candidate to recently fired Steve Sarkisian.
Booker is the player ASU has to key on every play from scrimmage because he's a three-down back who is a threat to catch the ball on swings, screens and check downs, and this season, Utah is motioning Booker to get more empty set looks on third and medium or long in an effort to have more hot route variability. This was a problem for Utah last year when Wilson threw for just 57 yards in the game against the Sun Devils.
Though Utah's passing offense is mostly quick game and hot route throws, the Utes will occasionally try to take some home run shots and often do it in a manner similar to Colorado, with a lone receiver on one side of the field, usually the wide side, in an effort to generate a one-on-one for a hitch-and-go or other double move. It actually occasionally brings on a defensive back -- Cory Butler-Byrd -- to take these shots, so it is a give away to its intentions.
Also like Colorado, the Utes like to use tight ends as smokescreen occupiers of safeties in order to leverage the one-on-one potential on the perimeter, and frequently do it with multiple tight ends releasing from a 3-point stance to mentally jar interior defenders to the key read.
Utah Offensive Personnel
Travis Wilson (No. 7) -- Deceptively mobile on his 6-foot-7, 233 pound frame, Wilson has learned the hard way how to be successful in the Pac-12 and suffered a huge physical toll in the process. A four-year starter, Wilson nearly had to quit playing after a nine-game sophomore season in which he threw 16 interceptions and 16 touchdowns due to an intracranial arterial condition that was discovered after he was knocked out of a game against Arizona State during the 2013 campaign. Further testing determined he was cleared to continue playing and he exposed himself to fewer violent hits last season and did a much better job of ball security, with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions in 13 games. Wilson is very good at escaping pressure and seeing when opportunities are present to scramble for first downs. Though he's improved at it during his career, Wilson can make pressure induced mistake throws that turn the ball over, including on one of his two interceptions against Cal last week at home.
Devontae Booker (No. 23) -- At 5-foot-11, 212 pounds, the 23 year-old senior is coming off a season in which he was first-team all-league. He's relied upon more than any running back in the Pac-12, averaging 28 carries per game -- 7 more than the next closest in the league -- and a big factor as a receiving threat. Booker has very good short area elusiveness and makes would be tackling linebackers miss getting hitting him on center and sometimes will leave them hugging air. Booker is also explosive verticality from idle, understands when to be patient and when not to be, and can run the full gamut of any team's run concepts from stretch zone to power and everything in between. He's a three-down NFL starter caliber back and the best among veterans in the Pac-12.
Kenneth Scott (No. 2) -- A sixth-year senior who has lost two full seasons to injury, Scott is a 6-foot-3, 208 pound wide receiver who often aligns to the boundary. The Utes tend to throw the ball to him as a hot target when Wilson is pressured. He's more of a possession type receiver than a big play threat, and in last season's game against the Sun Devils he was extremely quiet against ASU cornerback Lloyd Carrington.
Britain Covey (No. 18) -- A true freshman who is very small at 5-foot-8 and 166 pounds, Covey has stepped into an immediate starting role and is equally as-targeted as Utah's top returning receiver from last season, Scott. Covey is an extremely quick and shifty route runner who gains lateral separation effectively at the line of scrimmage and is tough to cover laterally, especially when operating from the slot. He's also as good as anyone in the Pac-12 at making the first guy miss as a punt returner and being able to evade tackles in tight quarters. Covey has said he is headed for a LDS Church Mission after this season.
Siaosi Aiono (No. 60) -- Utah's center and an all-league candidate, Aiono does a very good job of communicating to the rest of the group and keeping everyone on the same page from a protections and blitz identification standpoint. Utah doesn't have great offensive line talent overall but it works together very well and has a scheme that gets the ball out hot very effectively and a quarterback that is a good instinctual scrambler.
Rest of offensive line -- Right guard is the weakest position group for the Utes as they platoon two players, with Salesi Uhatafe being susceptible to linebacker pops and good technical pass rush moves from defensive tackles. At left tackle freshman Jackson Barton will be good but he's still young and developing. At right tackle, Phoenix-product J.J. Dielman is solid, but will at times sell out and give away his balance in order to try to stun pass rushers, and as a result doesn't sustain some reps.
ASU Defense Against Utah Offense
Re-watching ASU's game against Utah revealed to a large degree what we think will more or less again be its plan of attack because of how successful it was. Todd Graham dialed up six man pressures on 19 of Utah's 38 plays from scrimmage in the half, an incredible 50 percent rate. On 14 other downs ASU blitzed with five man pressure and only five times did it rush its front four. Therefore it blitzed on 33 of 38 plays in the half, an unheard of 87 percent. A lot of times fans associate blitzing with a desire to attack the quarterback but that's only half of the strategy. ASU uses formation blitzes against the run in an effort to steer the direction of the play toward its tacklers and/or where the run lanes won't be developed.
Utah is more of a pro-style rushing attack, more vertical than spread, and ASU tends to get more aggressive against this type of team. This is especially the case when there is less of a vertical threat via perimeter athletes at wide receiver. Against Utah last year, ASU brought more boundary corner blitzes than perhaps any other opponent because ASU coaches seemed to not be concerned about Bandit Jordan Simone being exploited in space vertically, and the plan worked.
Of course, there are potential pitfalls of such a strategy and they aren't related to just giving up big play opportunities down the field that result from so much on-on-one coverage. ASU relies on a lot of solo tackles, with junior linebacker Salamo Fiso, Simone and sophomore linebacker Christian Sam the top three players in the Pac-12 in the category. If Booker makes one guy miss against a six man pressure, he could find himself in the end zone in a hurry. Also, Wilson has had success scrambling vertically and those opportunities can be further challenged by such a blitz-heavy approach.
ASU senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington dominated Utah's top returning receiver Kenneth Scott in the match up between the two into the boundary last season and it's a challenge that sets up well for Carrington in this game after playing against some of the league's best receivers the last three games in a row. If any of Utah's receivers are going to make a big play, it's probably Covey working against nickel corner Solomon Means or someone else in a lateral moving route that results in a lot of yards after the catch. But the biggest challenges are ASU players making sure to stop Booker when he seems to be corralled, and not letting Wilson scramble to move the chains.
Utah Defensive Scheme
After four years in retirement John Pease is back with Utah as its defensive coordinator, having just turned 72 on Wednesday. When Utah made the move to the Pac-12 ahead of the 2011 season, Pease didn't follow. This, after a two-year stint as Assistant Head Coach and defensive line coach for Whittingham in 2009-10 that followed another hiatus from football that lasted three years.
A graduate of Utah some 50 years ago, Pease runs one of the more NFL-styled defenses in the Pac-12, and understandably so when looking at his resume. He has 23 years of professional coaching experience including nine years as the New Orleans Saints defensive line coach, eight years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the last two of which he served as defensive coordinator in 2001-02, and two years with the New Orleans Saints.
Due to wider hash marks in the college game than the NFL and how that changes athletic roles for positions, it's very common in college football and certainly in the Pac-12 for defensive coordinators to align their players based on the location of the ball. ASU is like this. Its corners, safeties, linebackers and defensive linemen all typically set up on either the short side of the field, called the boundary, or the wide side of the field, called the field side, based on the spotting of the ball.
Utah is a team that has left and right personnel, as you typically see in the NFL game, and moves its strong safety around based on formation strength. So for example, its defensive ends and linebackers are always on the same side of the field regardless of whether that's the field or boundary side. It will sometimes play its top cornerback on whomever the opposing team's top wide receiver is, if there is such a clear weapon.
Additionally, Utah is very pro-like in how it disguises its blitzes and coverages, doing a much better job of this than the typical college defense which is more predicable and often even high-school like in its presentation. The Utes will show or decoy certain looks pre-snap and then immediately shift to a different look post-snap in order to make quarterbacks have process errors, offensive linemen and other blockers have protection breakdowns, and even induce receivers with option routes into the wrong decisions. Utah is not a blitz-heavy team, but it disguises its well-conceived pressures and all other defensive plays about as well as anyone in the league.
The upside of this approach is that it's trickier for teams to contend with, while a downside is that there's often more potential for communication errors and it's harder to run seamlessly. Also, it requires more athletic balance across the field.
Utah likes to utilize a lot of single high safety looks and bring its strong safety in closer to the box in his alignments. Up front, it has more of a bull rush type of personnel, with high energy players who have the motor to sustain plays and the ability to collapse offensive linemen back into the pocket and onto the quarterback as well as any team in the league. Pocket integrity could be at a premium for ASU in this game.
Utah Defensive Personnel
Gionni Paul (No. 13) -- An extremely instinctive and athletic inside senior linebacker, Paul is among the best players at the position group in the league. He's exceptional as a zone underneath coverage linebacker, better than anyone in a similar role in the Pac-12 at being disruptive and is a takeaway threat. Though he's undersized at 5-foot-10 and 225 pounds, Paul is a sure tackler and plays with violence and has great range in pursuit of the football. He is a terrific playmaker. If there's an area in which Paul is susceptible, he can at times get sucked into misdirection flow, so counters, screens, and other plays that work against the grain can be successful, and running at him in a way that enables linemen to get on him is also a good strategy because he lacks length and can sometimes be absorbed.
Jared Norris (No. 41) -- The Utes' left linebacker is tied with Paul for the team lead in tackles with 39 and is far and away at his best as a run fit player because he has very good size and physicality. He pursues to the football very well in the run game, but can be exposed in the passing game. A senior and two-year starter at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, Norris isn't as good as Paul as a coverage linebacker and can sometimes be exposed in space, particularly when aligned to the field side.
Tevin Carter (No. 9) -- A strong safety who arrived at Utah out of the junior college ranks prior to last season, Carter typically align to formation strength and closer to the line of scrimmage than Utah's free safety, though sometimes they bail to Cover 2. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Carter plays big and is solid making plays coming up, but can be a bit lumbering as a coverage safety and is especially vulnerable when Utah asks him to cover slot receivers in space out of trips formations.
Hunter Dimick (No. 49) -- After missing action earlier in the season due to injury, Dimick returned to start as his usual left end position last week against Cal. In the past, Dimick caused problems for ASU right tackle Tyler Sulka at times with his combination of power and technique. Last season he had 10.5 sacks as part of a two-headed monster with right end Nate Orchard, who had 18.5 sacks and has since moved on to the NFL. Dimick hasn't put much together statistically this season, but he's just getting healthy and will be a serious test for ASU right tackle William McGehee so that's a sub-plot worth watching in this game.
Dominique Hatfield (No. 15) -- Though he's a bit undersized at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, this Los Angeles product is very quick and agile and proven that the conversion from wide receiver to cornerback he undertook last season was the right move. Hatfield is probably Utah's best pure man coverage defender but the trade off is he's a little more blockable and able to be attacked in screens and the run game as a trade off due to his lighter frame. Utah likes to have him shadow an opposing team's top wide receiver if its coaches feel its a favorable element of their broader game plan. ASU doesn't have a clear-cut No. 1 target so it will be interesting to see how he is employed.
Pita Taumoepenu (No. 50) -- At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, Taumoepenu is a lightly used though important to know player. He's a third and long or situational nickel speed rusher who is the best pure pass rusher the Utes have. He only has six tackles this season and four have been sacks. It's important to watch how ASU's offensive tackles hold up against his quickness off the snap and ability to force quick sets. Usually it'll be the left offensive tackle Utah tests with Taumoepenu, so junior Evan Goodman's performance in third and long will be watched carefully and ASU may even need to chip Taumoepenu or max protect if it becomes an issue. This is a player who probably would be starting at Devil backer at some point in his career for ASU and very productive in the role.
ASU Offense Against Utah Defense
Balance from ASU's offense is essential to success in this game and that doesn't necessarily mean it has to rush for 200 yards but the Sun Devils need to be able to stay on schedule on early downs through a combination of runs and run replacements, like screens both inside and the perimeter, and quick game throws. Senior Mike Bercovici can't be put in a lot of third and long situations because of how well Utah induces mistakes from quarterbacks due to its strong capability of disguising blitzes and coverages. It's a lot for even experienced quarterbacks to manage without making mistakes.
Bercovici and ASU's running backs simply can't turn the ball over in this game for ASU to be successful. This has all the makings of an NFL-type of defensive slugfest with field position being a major undercurrent and punters and punt return success, or lack thereof being a significant factor. The Sun Devils have to force Utah into full field scoring drives by not turning the ball over and not blundering with its punt team.
The way ASU can have success on near-area throws is by trying to target Norris at the linebacker level and Carter at the safety level by working to generate mismatch opportunities through personnel grouping and scheme. Trips to the field side is one way teams have been able to do this with some success, crossing routes is another, as well as two-back sets which include route running by one of the backs that has to be covered by Norris or Carter.
This is a Demario Richard type of ball game but the sophomore running back may not be fully healthy after hurting his knee against Colorado last week and being limited in practices. That could lead to a lot of reps for sophomore Kalen Ballage in the backfield and he'll have to hit the designed hole when there is one on the interior, and have have good ball security. D.J. Foster may get more looks in the backfield in this game if Richard is limited or unable to go.
Utah Special Teams
The Utes have excellent special teams, probably the best in the conference. Multi-directional rugby punter Tom Hackett is a major weapon with his ability to punt opposite of his roll out and flip the field. ASU's De'Chavon Hayes can't muff any punts and has to make good decisions. ASU punter Matt Haack has to force Covey, the Pac-12's best punt returner, from being able to return the football via low line drive punts. ASU junior kicker Zane Gonzalez has to continue to put the ball out of the back of the end zone given the field position nature of this game and Utah's strength in the return game.
This is a very good match-up for ASU's defense, especially after some of the tests it faced already in the Pac-12 so far this year. Ultimately, the key will be how well ASU's offense does on early downs, and if it can take care of the football, as well as if it can play without having a major special teams blunder. While I don't think ASU will fire on all cylinders yet on offense, I do think Utah is due to see its turnover margin advantage dissipate, as well as have an empty drive into the red zone. I think ASU's special teams are trending well and will have a good performance, and Bercovici plays well enough that ASU extends its 11 game streak over Utah dating to 1977 and wins 20-17.