With 14 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, then-No. 18 Utah, trailing California 23-28, had a first and goal two yards away from a game-winning touchdown. This Utes’ offense, leading the Pac-12 in 4th down conversion percentage (90%), conversions (9), and attempts (10) -- is acquainted with pressure, and the two clearly get along well.
Cal’s defensive unit was on the last paces of a marathon. Utah’s 94 offensive plays and 41:45 time of possession to this juncture was already four more snaps and 7 more minutes of work than Art Kaufman's group had faced this season.
The Bears may have had weary legs, but they got off to this goal-line stand on the right foot:
Utah’s mistake here was not play-calling. The stop-us-if-you-can tailback dive was good for four fourth-down conversions and five yards per carry when Utes running back Armand Shyne was in the backfield. The problem was that Shyne was on the bench for that snap.
And the next.
And the next.
And that was the ballgame.
Utah and Cal’s by-committee approach to staffing tailbacks is a double-edged sword, and a sequence like this looks like the Utes may have taken the blade in their decision to play Zack Moss over Shyne. The Utes’ inability to convert in a tense-but-favorable goal line situation is evidence supporting the “hot hands” approach to selecting the proper representative from the Running Back Committee.
The Utes boast two capable backs of very similar builds in Shyne (5-foot-11, 215 pounds) and Moss (5-foot-10 and 213 pounds). Shyne had the edge on Moss in yards per carry, (4.0 to 3.5), rushing touchdowns (2 to 1), and most importantly, fourth-down conversions (3-for-3 vs. 1-for-2) that afternoon.
While Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham may not have had his stat sheet handy, he’d just have to look back to the result of his second-to-last touchdown drives to remember the Utes’ first failed fourth down conversion of the season: another Moss handoff.
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Sonny Dykes has repeatedly attested to the “hot hands” approach, and it may not be long until Cal finds themselves testing it when deciding between Tre Watson, Khalfani Muhammad and Vic Enwere when the Bears are next down a score and in need of a scamper.