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Utah's lack of offensive identity

Though rarely known for their offense since Urban Meyer left, the Utes at least somewhat had an offensive identity in the past. Now, though? Good like trying to find it.

Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Under Kyle Whittingham, Utah has almost universally been known for their defense. As a former defensive coordinator himself, that's not really a surprise - teams tend to take on the look of their coach. Whittingham is, and always has been, a defensive-first coach.

Really, there is nothing wrong with that. We knew, back when he was hired in 2005, this team wouldn't be the explosive and aggressive offensive juggernaut it had established itself under Urban Meyer. When he left for Florida, the idea the offense would be the center of this team left with him. So, the fact the Utes, eight years later, lean more on their defense than offense isn't surprising. That's just Kyle Whittingham's coaching philosophy and it's what he has been most comfortable with as a head coach.

Even so, even with Whittingham putting emphasis on the defensive side of the ball, Utah still managed to produce decent offenses ... offenses that sometimes would score impressively and play aggressively. Yes, they were never as liberal in their game planning as the Urban Meyer offenses, but there was an offense, or at least a semi-structure of what should be an offense.

Under Andy Ludwig, the Utes ran a fairly recognizable spread-option in 2005 when Brian Johnson was a sophomore. That offenses was adjusted a bit in 2006 with the injury to Johnson and the limited mobility of Brett Ratliff - becoming a mix of the pro-style and spread-option to mask the offense's flaws. When Johnson returned in '07, there was a bigger commitment to the spread, however, much more limited than in '05 because of his injury. That offense carried over into 2008 and saw its best production of the Whittingham-Ludwig era when the Utes went undefeated and beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Even then, though, the offense used in their bowl game didn't necessarily resemble the offense we saw throughout much of the season. If you'll recall, there was a great deal of hurry-up in that first quarter ... something Utah really didn't run much outside the final two-minutes of a close game.

The identity of the Ludwig era is mixed because it wasn't quite spread-option and not quite pro-style. The biggest argument against his offenses was that he could never commit to a specific one and it seemed the program was only running bits of the spread-option to placate fans. In fact, prior to coming to Utah, Ludwig had never run the spread-option and generally focused on the more traditional pro-style offenses, including his affinity for the I-formation.

So, there was never a true commitment to an offensive identity even back in '06. But you still had a sense there was some form of offense. It wasn't just a smorgasbord of plays from every type of offense possible.

For a defensive-first team, whether we liked it then or not (and many, including me, didn't), in retrospect, we can say it probably worked. We were never going to be the program that lit up the scoreboards, but there was also an aspect of trusting the offense to the point where it was never really a liability under Ludwig. Now, yes, there were games where the offense disproved my theory here, but on the whole, especially in 2007 and 2008, for the most part, they pretty much did enough to put the game in the hands of the defense. After all, in those years, Utah football generally had a productive offense that, at worst, ranked in the middle nationally and never sank to the depths we saw last season and so far this season.

When Ludwig left, we mostly greeted his decision with indifference and excitement because there was the hope of breathing new life into this offense. The hope was that the next guy would be more innovative and riskier than Ludwig. In the end, the offenses haven't lived up to the level of consistency that we saw under Ludwig, and more importantly, it appears the same problems we had with Ludwig still exist today - namely that the offense is vanilla and conservative.

What's the connection between Ludwig, Dave Schramm, Aaron Roderick, Norm Chow and Brian Johnson? They all still report to Kyle Whittingham. It's clear that Whittingham has a great deal of influence over this offense and because of that, because he's a defensive-first coach, it seems he views the offense as more an extension of the defense ... less aggressive, more conservative ball control offense that doesn't do much except to not turn the ball over.

Well good news, Utah, you're tied for fifth best in turnovers lost ... but how's not turning the ball over working out for you?

Not so well when you consider this team ranks 112th (out of 120 teams - and many ties!) in total offense and is 92nd in scoring offense.

Once again, just as it was in Norm Chow's one and only season here, the Utes' offense is one of the worst in the nation. It's so bad, so awful right now, that instead of being an asset because of its conservative playmaking, it has now become a liability. We saw it on full display this past Saturday when, after ASU torched the Utes' defense, the inability to move the ball at all, either on the ground or through the air (not that they tried the latter), left the entire team essentially impotent (quick, someone call Bob Dole).

That is inexcusable ... that is inexcusable for the second straight season.

So, what the hell is going on with this team's offense? Yes, I get the offensive line is bad and I get that Whittingham bungled the quarterback situation post-Brian Johnson. Still, that doesn't explain why teams with less talent in lesser leagues have produced more points per game and better offenses than Utah (New Mexico State has averaged almost six more points than Utah through four games). What I saw out there was a team lacking an offensive identity ... or at least a team that wanted a positive identity.

Which brings us right back to Kyle Whittingham. Is Brian Johnson being constrained by Whittingham or is this of his own doing? Was it Brian Johnson's call to only pass sixteen times (fun note, Utah's passing offense is 100th nationally) Saturday? Was it Johnson's call to put Travis Wilson in and only have him pass once? Are we trying to set offenses back 60 years by completely doing away with the forward pass?

These are legitimate questions to ask and the scary part here is that I don't know the answers. We were led to believe Johnson would have free rein to run this offense and if that's the case, he's woefully unprepared to do so. But I don't think it is. I still think Whittingham, just as he has in the past, wants to micromanage this offense to the point where its sole purpose is to play ball control. I think he's convinced himself this is the only way possible to keep things from collapsing ... to keep things from getting worse.

And maybe he's right. Maybe an aggressive offense would lead to more turnovers and a lot more points for the opposing team. So, instead of losing 37-7, Utah's losing 60-3. But we don't know because this offense has been run so conservatively the past four games that we really still haven't found out where it might excel. The running game has been underwhelming. The passing game has consistently been limited, even with Jon Hays, who's not injured and has a fairly strong arm, and the play calling has often been erratic from drive to drive.

What Saturday showed us was that this team can't just lean on its defense. The offense is going to have to provide a spark or we're not going to win another game this year. That's an awfully bold statement to make, but it's true. They won't win another game, not even against Colorado, if they can't figure out how to score some points.

If Whittingham trusts Johnson to run this offense, he's going to have to go to him and tell him to open up the playbook ... tell him to get aggressive. But if we're going to hold back Johnson and this offense out of fear, then buckle up for a really long season because I don't think this defense can carry the load like it did last year.

So, Whittingham is going to have to do the exact opposite of what his instinct might be and he's going to have to trust this offense. It might prove a miserable failure, but right now, it ain't like anything's working anyway. I get Whittingham is all about the defense. I get he wants an offense that is low-risk and will do just enough. The problem is, and it's been like this for the past two seasons, it's not doing just enough. It's stagnant, it's slow, and most damning of all ... it's predictable. Which makes it a risk.

I don't think Whittingham wants that to be the Utes' offensive identity. Unfortunately, that's what it is becoming.

This season hangs in the balance now and Utah can't afford to go ultra-conservative. I'm not asking for the reincarnation of Bill Walsh, but something needs to happen here. They need an identity ... and fast.