Beat the Big Tackles
Utah knew that lumbering tackles Jeremiah Poutasi (6-5, 345 pounds) and Siasi Aiono (6-2, 305 pounds) would stand no chance against a standard Trent Murphy-fueled pass rush. No. 93 confirmed the Utes' fears in the second quarter when he surged past Poutasi twice in one drive to crunch quarterback Travis Wilson. The message was clear: A conventional drop-back passing attack would not work against Stanford.
But Utah coach Kyle Whittingham had a plan to neutralize this glaring Stanford advantage. His offense resorted to a heavy dose of quick perimeter swing passes, essentially rendering his offensive tackle play, and the Cardinal's pass rush, moot. The strategy borrowed some ideas from Washington's playbook a week prior, but the Utes' move to the sidelines still surprised Stanford.
"We weren't really expecting the perimeter stuff," Murphy said. "We thought they'd come more downhill and keep it in the middle."
Oh, they did come downhill too -- after stretching Stanford thin to the perimeter. Utah replicated the success UCLA's offense saw against the Farm Boys in last year's Pac-12 title game. The Utes rushed for 130 yards in the first half before Derek Mason made the appropriate adjustments to slow their attack. Press coverage and a turn to a larger, run-stopping nickel back in Joe Hemschoot did the trick, but the help came too late for Stanford's good. They backed themselves into a corner that only fourth quarter perfection could have escaped. The Cardinal's final two offensive play calls, of course, were far from perfect: Ty Montgomery, the best player on the field, was not even in the game when Stanford abandoned its power running identity on third and short from the Utah six yard line in favor of a low percentage throw to a recently converted defensive lineman.
So though Stanford did beat Utah's offensive tackles, they only received very limited chances to do so. The Utes built their lead by shifting the battle elsewhere, and the Cardinal played by the home team's rules for most of the contest.
Grade: Incomplete (Stanford did not put themselves in position to capitalize on this clear advantage.)
Administer the Punishment on Third Down
The Utes entered this game having converted only three of their previous 27 third down tries. Stanford's formula, then, was simple: Stop the run on the early downs so that Wilson would have to pass his way out of trouble against pressure.
If only it were that easy.
On third and 17 in the first quarter, the formula seemed to be working quite well, until Devon Carrington matched up with explosive Utah wide receiver Dres Anderson, who roasted coverage to haul in a 51-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline. The speedy Utah wideout sped past the secondary on that electric play while Wilson sidestepped the rush to buy time. There was no safety help to be found. In a crucial situation later on, when Utah lined up for a third-and-eight from their own two yard line in the second quarter, Barry Browning inexplicably gave Sean Fitzgerald a 10-yard cushion on the outside. An easy Wilson out throw moved the chains, and Utah proceeded to march 99 yards to take a lead that they would not relinquish. A controversial Ben Gardner roughing the passer penalty also extended that long drive.
Utah ultimately converted 6 of 14 first downs. That's not a stellar rate, but they came through with gut-punching blows at critical junctures.
Grade: F (Stanford had a chance to grab control of the game when Utah faced third and eight from their own two yard line. Instead, the Cardinal offered up a gigantic cushion.)
Bring Back Passing Efficiency
After studying tape of UCLA's close call at Utah, in which Brett Hundley struggled for much of the game, Kevin Hogan was ready for the Utes' early assortment of blitzes. He was excellent to open the contest, leading Stanford 75 yards on the first seven plays from scrimmage to set up an early Tyler Gaffney touchdown run. Passes of 34 yards to Montgomery and 28 yards to Kodi Whitfield singed Utah's defense. The Cardinal's passing attack had seemingly rediscovered its mojo a week after sputtering against Washington.
But then the Utes adopted the Huskies' successful formula, backing off their signature pressure and daring No. 8 to do what he hadn't done a week prior: beat coverage by throwing darts. Hogan again struggled against these adjustments through the middle of the game. For a long stretch, he couldn't consistently deliver the knifing throws necessary to pick apart Utah's pass coverage. The Cardinal's offensive line wasn't perfect, and Hogan did not appear comfortable in the pocket until Stanford's furious comeback attempt in the fourth quarter. That's when the Farm Boys seemed to realize that Utah's secondary was actually not very good and that Montgomery could have a field day.
Thanks to newfound aggressiveness, Hogan was brilliant on the game's final drive. He threw a pair of bullets to Montgomery to convert third downs before finding Whitfield with an excellent 23-yard pass to the Utah 14 yard line. Down the stretch, Cardinal fans saw the maturation of a young quarterback in Salt Lake City. That progress, though, is now overshadowed by Stanford's inability to finish an otherwise impressive drive. Efficiency was a hallmark of that march until Gaffney (16 carries, 108 yards) did not get the ball on third and short despite his 6.8 yard-per-rush average. As it stands now, it was an incomplete effort despite solid numbers (15 for 27, 246 yards, 9.1 YPA).
Next week's showdown with UCLA's talented secondary will offer Hogan, who's now 10-1 as Stanford's starting quarterback, another opportunity to completely take the next step.
Grade: C (Hogan made massive strides late, but the Cardinal abandoned their power running mentality when it mattered, so that effort went to waste.)
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!