Fee Fi Foe Film: Utah Defense Comment Count

Ace September 18th, 2014 at 5:20 PM

Previously: Utah Offense

well then

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.


Hugh White

September 18th, 2014 at 5:50 PM ^

I am not sure what accounts for 23-year old sophomore Justin Thomas.  However, it may be interesting to note that 21 players on the Ute Roster have returned to the team after having gone on two-year Church missions.  One might conclude that this would have a significant impact on the maturity of the squad overall.


September 18th, 2014 at 6:35 PM ^

"Mormom's" are what a child calls his mothers in a polygamous Mormon marriage -- or their mother's things, since the apostrophe makes the term possessive and not plural? My hunch is that mormoms usually don't go to college. They go to lessons taught by the Mordad, who is usually a messiah of some sort, at least in his own compound.


September 18th, 2014 at 6:35 PM ^

Wow just from a few replays of that game Fresno's offensive line looks completely hapless..  Beyond worse than ours was last year, if that is even possible..


No wonder they lead the country in sacks lol..


September 18th, 2014 at 7:07 PM ^

Our defense will show up....... which offense will show up? These other teams that are real good must get bored knowing each week they will win. We on the other hand have no clue if we will beat whoever we play......... Which makes Saturday really fun!


September 18th, 2014 at 8:02 PM ^

Is this a mirage? It sounds like our OL will have a chance. I would love a 300 yard performance from our RBs. Let us hope we can pick up the blitz. It is sure coming.


September 18th, 2014 at 8:51 PM ^

I see why UM was favoured by so much before the season started.. What I can't understand is why the line went down, the Utes look fat and slow along the O and D lines. Now that I have seen some film of the Utes I would gladly give Utah 15 pts in this game. Green will get 100+ as will Deveon. Go Blue!!!


September 18th, 2014 at 10:58 PM ^

Greetings Michigan fans from a Utah fan. I'm tacking this on because I don't seem to be able to start a thread.
First of all I'm really excited to see this game on Saturday. I think it has an outsized impact on the seasons for each team. Setting the ND game aside (they are really good), both teams have feasted on creampuffs. Neither fanbase knows what to think about its team and the season ahead. I think this weekend is really important in terms of teaching each team about itself. 

I've been lurking on Michigan boards, blogs and news sites this week. I've been really impressed at the quality analysis in articles like this one--if only Utah's clickbait journalists would have the chops and interest to do similar breakdowns of film on our own teams, let alone our opponents. Good on all of you for that. Generally, all the basics are well covered. As a result, I thought I'd add a few bits to add a little more insight. If helpful, then great.
Utah fan expectations—negative with some hope:
I think at bottom, Utah fans are squarely in the same basic position as Michigan fans--hopeful but more than prepared to accept that the team just doesn't have it this year--again. There have been a number of polls in Utah fan sites about win numbers expected. The median ranges between 4 or 5 and 7. People who hope for 8 wins are accused of homerdom. We’ve had some tough years and expectations are tempered. Five of our games in the next 8 weeks are ranked. 
Transition to PAC-12—QB and offensive problems coincide with transition to much tougher league:
Utah's 2004 and 2008 BCS wins were perfectly timed in terms of joining the P5. There were a lot of lucky breaks, but by and large Utah had the coaching and the players to win their way into a major conference. Had the undefeated seasons and BCS wins not happened, we would still be in the MWC. I think the door has already closed for others, so I think Utah fans properly recognize their tremendous luck at having Urban Meyer kick off the transition from above average MWC power to P5 candidate. The 2004 and 2008 teams have left a wider impact: HCs and assistants for those teams are now HCs in SEC and B1G. We’re trying to stop being a stepping stone to somewhere bigger and Whittingham’s decision to stay despite offers to coach Tennessee or the Raiders defense, etc. has been good for us. The last few years have been hard on Utah fan hopes, however. The team is getting noticeably deeper, but the last three years have coincided with a serious upgrade in coaching and team quality across the conference. Our own problems are largely a result of…
OC, QB and offensive woes—investment in wrong people compounds problem:
The last year that Utah had a starting QB finish the season was the year we last played Michigan in the Big House--2008. In 2009, true freshman Jordan Wynn competed for and ultimately won the starting spot. He torched Cal in a bowl game. This led to a hole in QB recruiting which led to a failure to secure decent backups for three years. In 2011 and 2012, our backup was a D-II recruit that Norm Chow (three coordinators ago) brought in when that player’s former program cancelled football. Wynn failed to finish more than half a season for two or three years until he retired. Our mediocre D-II backup played A LOT of QB. Predictably, we rode on the shoulders of a tailback. He ran 400 times a year. Our offense struggled to get three touchdowns a game.
Meanwhile, Whittingham lost several offensive coordinators to head coaching and “bigger program” OC positions. After Norm Chow left to take the Hawaii head coaching job, Whittingham made an apparent attempt to stabilize by appointing homegrown Brian Johnson as OC--the quarterback who played in Ann Arbor the last time we were there. Johnson was 24 and the OC of a P5 program. This was probably the single biggest staffing error Whittingham made as HC at Utah. He was too young and the play calling together with our QB situation meant that we relied on our defense to keep the game close. The joke became “keep them at 20”—if the D could keep the other team around 20 points, we had a shot to win. It is disappointing how much this joke was true. After Erickson was fired at ASU, Whittingham brought him in to help train the OC, creating a weird “co-OC” arrangement. There was some confusion over who had the final call. Erickson has been a total pro despite a chaotic atmosphere and he now coaches the RBs. After last year, Whittingham had to replace Johnson and brought in recently fired Wyoming HC Dave Christensen. Johnson left to join his old QB coach at Mississippi State. Christensen and Whitt have an old relationship and Chrisensen had a good track record as OC at Missouri. So far, so good...
QB Wilson’s numbers explained—good then very bad:
On top of brittle former starting QBs and OC turnover, last year our starter also dealt with injury problems. He damaged his hand badly against Stanford. His season last year started 4-2 before his numbers imploded with his hand. Many, many of his picks happened after he injured himself. Against UCLA, he threw six picks, for example. Some were read problems, some were just bad tips, and some were that he couldn't throw. It’s clear that until he was told he could never play football again, he was pushed to persevere despite a mangled throwing hand until he basically broke psychologically one night. After that, we started a walkon who lost us a lot of games at the end of the year. Recruiting a QB became a priority. We now have six QBs on scholarship: Wilson worked his ass of and is back. Kendall Thompson is a senior OU transfer who was recruited to replace what we thought was a retired Wilson. Brandon Cox is 3rd and our next starter. Our 4th, Connor Manning, is an OC product who broke all of Matt Barkley’s records. Donovan Isom is a 6’5” true frosh expected to lead in two or three years. And finally, Wyoming’s backup came with Christensen.  These reflect the shifting OCs. Wilson and the 4th stringer are primarily pocket passers, and 3, 5 and 6 are clearly dual threat QBs. Our preferred approach is dual threat and the pocket passers are Chow leftovers. Manning will probably transfer. Wilson is getting better and better at the read option. His decision making is better too. At 6’7”, he can fall forward well.
Injuries and depth:
Last year our offense struggled in part because our number two and the number three receivers, possession receiver Kenneth Scott and TE Jake Murphy, were also injured. Scott is back and we added several JCs who are exciting prospects. On defense, we added a safety, Tevin Carter, who was judged to be better than our PAC-12 freshman all-star Eric Rowe. Our CB situation thinned out (there are nine Utah DBs in the NFL now), so Rowe is now one of our starting corners. The other starter proved to be a bit of a nightmare in game one and has been replaced by a receiver who played safety in high school. He did very well at CB in our last game--considering. The DL is depleted but our LB situation is the most worrisome. Our SAM starter the last two games broke his wrist, and we have had to reorganize our defense. We are getting a Miami transfer back from a foot injury this week, which is a very good thing, and we are shifting our stud DE to SAM as a kind of spy back. We are deepest at DE with three or four players who have overwhelmed the creampuffs. Our run defense numbers against Idaho State were not good—coaches indicated that gap reads were off for the LBs in that game. They got this fixed for Fresno and the yardage came down sharply. Hopefully, our replacements are ready to play against what will likely be a run heavy offensive attack from Michigan. Very hard to say what will happen. My guess is that Michigan will run pretty well.
Why Utah could win:
Last year, despite ending 5-7, Utah ended Stanford's win streak, lost to Oregon State in overtime and played UCLA, Arizona and PAC-12 South champ ASU to the final possession or minute before losing. Had the games broken better, 5-7 could have been 8 or 9 wins even with our completely shitty offense. This team is deeper at every position (other than CB and LB) than we have been since joining the conference. If we stay healthy and put it together, this could be a better year by three or four games. Saturday will tell us what we might be allowed to expect as fans.
Why Utah could lose:
Our OL play and our young CBs struggle and Michigan is able to stuff our run game while burning our young secondary. This could be a long day, if we don’t coach it right. A failure to get into the backfield will make it very hard on our secondary. Expect A LOT of blitzing. UM will probably do really well throwing short into the middle. Hoke knows Whitt's habits so this should happen.
The Polynesian connection:
From as early as 1880s, Mormon missionaries preached in Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, and even to the Maori in New Zealand. Today on several islands, Mormonism is the most prominent sect. What this means is that one in four Tongans living outside of Tonga live in Utah. About the same number of Samoans live in Salt Lake also. The last BYU-Utah game was attended by the king of Tonga, Western Samoa's cabinet and American Samoa's representative in Congress. A lot of those boys were built for ball. The Glendale neighborhood of Salt Lake City is one of the most concentrated for NFL players as anywhere in America. Salt Lake has more Polynesians than anywhere in America other than Honolulu, LA, the Bay Area and maybe Seattle. My kid attends East High School in Salt Lake, in which whites are a minority and which played Oahu's Kahuku High School in the preseason and sent polynesian players to Stanford, ASU and Wisconson in addition to Utah. Utah’s football team is roughly a third white, a third black and a third Polynesian. Michigan players Mone and Houma will line up against fellow Utah state champion Highland High School teammate Nate Orchard—our biggest playmaker on D.
Well, this went long. Unfortunately I won’t be there this year, but thought you might enjoy some of these supplemental thoughts. Here’s to an injury free Saturday and to good years for both programs.


September 19th, 2014 at 2:50 AM ^

insightful and well written. don't think i could summarize our woes and strengths last year and this year in a few paragraphs, but i was not an English major. Good work ! Still hope we win though you got it right we are not sure where we stand against non-creampuff competition . We're really hoping ND was the perfect storm and not the perfect norm !


September 19th, 2014 at 9:51 AM ^

I’m expecting to see a lot of blitzing from the Utah D. The M.O. for beating Michigan the past year or so is to bring pressure and watch the line collapse and the offense eventually turn into shambles. The key matchup in my opinion will be our O line vs. the Utah rush and/or blitz.

Gardner will have to play good in this game with no unnecessary turnovers by him or the rest of the offense. The offensive line will have to hold up under pressure and if one of the RBs can at least get in the 80-90 yard range, I’d expect the team to be in good shape for a W.

I think the defense will be fine. Utah will score some points but I’m not expecting them to get near their 50+ point/game average. If they do, we deserve to lose.


September 19th, 2014 at 2:04 PM ^

I’m not sure what to think. I am like many UM fans. I’m scared of my own memories. Akron, UConn, PSU, Nebraska, Iowa, MSU, ND and 5 minutes vs. Miami (OH) have made me gun shy. I think we all have a low-light reel running in our heads of turnovers, missed blocks, DLs not getting home, tempo O, scorched UM DBs, and RBs running into a wall of defenders. This reel has made every national pundit, local media member and seemingly most UM fans pick Utah. These predictions have actually made UM fans call even more loudly for EVERYONE to be fired and Gardner to be benched – fueled by Saturday’s game which they’ve already fearfully played and lost deep in their own amygdala. I’ve closed my eyes and played that game many times this week in my fear center too. About 25% of the time it is horrific and the realization of all my fear and doubt. Another 45% of the time it is a UM win (I’m an optimist generally). Some are big wins and some are troubling little wins. The other 30% of the time I stop the game because it sucks to be a UM fan in your own head right now.

Actually, I think I’m more sure what to think than I thought 5 minutes ago. I think that UM is still 19-2 at home under Hoke. I think that the defense, OL and even the DBs look better than last year. I think Gardner is no worse than last year (which is disappointing because I was ready for him to look exponentially better).  I think UM has better athletes, but most importantly, I think Utah has been worse than UM the past two years. I think their QB throws INTs at twice the rate of DG. I think they’ve only won 2 road games in the past two years. I think their fans’ memories are as bad as ours, and would be worse if the Utes off-season hope hadn’t been buffed to a brilliant shine clubbing two baby seals.

Both teams are flawed and both teams have big question marks. Both are wrestling with past demons of bad football, but in most ways relative to this game, UM has had more success. We’re all more familiar with UM’s demons, and Utah hasn’t seen theirs this year…yet. I’m thinking Utah fans see them this Saturday wearing maize and blue uniforms.