Previously: Utah Offense
The above is representative of Fresno State's level of offensive competence, which I guess is as nice a way as I can muster to say they had none. Given the Bulldogs are the best team Utah has faced in two games this year, it's safe to say the Utes' excellent raw defensive numbers must be accompanied with a massive grain of salt. To wit: Utah ranks in the top ten in all but one category (in which they rank 18th) for the components that make up their defensive S&P+ ranking, but when Football Outsiders accounts for schedule their overall defense S&P+ ranking ends up at #52.
We are all Jon Snow this week. Time to share all the nothing I know...
Personnel: As you'll see, Utah rolls out a lot of different defensive fronts, but their standard is usually a three-man front with DE/OLB Nate Orchard lined up as a standup rush end [click to embiggen]:
Utah's secondary is less experienced than even this graphic indicates. A rundown:
- Top corner Eric Rowe, a senior, spent his entire career to this point at free safety. In the spring, he split time between safety and corner, and at one point was listed as the starter at both positions.
- The other starting corner, Dominique Hatfield, played wideout last year and was slated to be the starting Z receiver this spring.
- Nickel Justin Thomas, a former four-star recruit, is a 23-year old sophomore. He didn't play his senior year of high school because he was too old, according to league rules. His profile doesn't list an explanation for how this happened. He started four games last year, making him the grizzled veteran among the non-safeties in the starting secondary.
- The fourth corner, Davion Orphey, started eight games last season, and yet he's behind all of the above players. This is probably related to Utah ranking 86th in opponent passer efficiency in 2013.
- Free safety Tevin Carter was a four-star Cal commit as a wide receiver in the 2010 class. He didn't stick there, stopping over at two different JuCos. He didn't play football last year and missed this spring with an injury before entering fall camp as the backup. He's now the starter.
- Strong safety Brian Blechen has 35 career starts to his name, but split his time between safety and linebacker, then missed all of 2013 due to injury.
The Utes also lost six of their top nine linebackers from last year, including their two most productive pass-rushers, and three of their top five defensive tackles from 2013, when they were already replacing first-round pick Star Lotulelei and their other starting tackle.
So, yeah, the personnel matchup suggests Michigan should have a significant advantage here, especially since the Utes are also quite undersized up front.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown, which mostly consists of Fresno State being hilariously bad at football.]
Base Set? 3-3-5 hybrid. Against Fresno State's spread, which usually had four receivers on the field and never fewer than three, Utah kept their nickel on the field at all times, and if they made a change it was to a dime package. They show a lot of different looks up front, however. Here's a 4-2-5 look against four wide:
A 3-3-5 against four wide:
Here they are with three down linemen and two standup linebackers coming off the edge:
Interestingly, on the rare occasions Fresno put two backs in the backfield, Utah stuck to a three-man line. Here they have just six men in the box:
The Bulldogs plowed ahead for a whopping two yards on this play, which for them constituted a wildly successful run. One last look at formations—against another two-back set, Utah again trotted out a 3-3-5 but rolled the strong safety (#4, directly between the hashes) up to linebacker depth:
We'll see how Utah responds to a Michigan offense that actually utilizes a tight end and the occasional fullback; regardless, expect a lot of different looks up front.
Man or zone coverage? Almost exclusively man coverage, usually a simple Cover 1 with Carter patrolling the deep middle. On their first possession, Fresno took two deep shots at Thomas, who blanketed the first one but got beat by a couple steps on the second, only to recover on an underthow.
The Bulldogs had a couple more chances to take advantage of Utah's constant man coverage. Here their top receiver gets a free inside release against Hatfield on third-and-medium but can't hang onto a high, but very catchable, pass:
On third-and-long later on, Fresno finally figured out they could counter Utah's blitz with a short crossing route, and it was all set up for glory until...
...the turf monster struck. That's not very nice, Mr. Turf Monster.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? As you could see in the Turf Monster play, Utah likes to bring the heat, especially on passing downs. They don't usually send more than five players, but the difficulty is in identifying which five are coming from their multiple fronts—Utah also utilizes an Okie front in obvious passing situations.
Dangerman: The standup DE, Nate Orchard, spent pretty much the entire game either harassing Fresno's QB or destroying outside runs. He does a nice job of holding the edge and his athleticism is tough to handle for offensive tackles. While he didn't record a sack, he was largely responsible for flushing the QB into the arms of his teammates, and Utah ended up with seven sacks on the day.
A couple of those sacks, however, had nothing to do with Nate Orchard, or really anything done by Utah. Here are back-to-back plays from the first half. This is not a good cut block:
The next play is somehow even worse:
Your eyes do not deceive you. That is, indeed, a defensive end flying off the edge untouched on a three-man rush.
As you can probably imagine, Fresno State's run blocking wasn't exactly stellar, either, though I didn't bother to clip any of that embarrassment.
What little else I managed to learn from this blowout that hasn't already been covered: Utah's undersized DTs can get pushed around quite a bit—on a play that stood as a testament to Fresno's inability to do anything right even when doing something right, they pancaked both DTs on an inside run, but failed to account for a single linebacker, managing just two yards even though both tackles were on the dang ground.
The defensive backs are all pretty athletic, but they can get picked on. Thomas, as mentioned above, got beat clean over the top early on. When Fresno inserted their backup QB in the second quarter, he completed a ten-yard comeback and a nine-yard back-shoulder throw on consecutive plays with relative ease against the Utah corners. The Bulldogs managed to work their way to just outside the red zone on this drive, helped by some solid scrambles by the QB—Utah's DTs had a tough time maintaining their lanes—but the drive stalled when they called a QB draw for the second time in two third-and-mediums, then ran the fourth down play that graces the top of this post. Oy.
The inside linebackers, for their part, looked solid; they flowed well to the ball and cleaned up a lot of plays the DTs didn't make. I can't tell you anything about the safeties, since Fresno couldn't threaten at all downfield enough to test them.
In short, this defense looks pretty mediocre on paper, but Fresno State was by no means the team to test their weaknesses.