It’s on purpose, and it takes a lot of work
Andy Phillips is perfectly capable of kicking the ball out of the end zone on a kickoff. Against Michigan, the Utes put it through the back of the end zone on all five kickoffs. We can’t know whether this was because the Utes feared the stunning athletic ability of Julius Peppers or if they didn’t feel they had yet perfected kick coverage to wear it was worth the risk, but it’s certain that Phillips is more than capable of making that play.
What the Utes do on kickoffs is intentional. The coaches figure that the kick coverage will hold the other team behind the 25 often enough, and give up massive returns infrequently enough, that over time the special teams unit will start to take away points from opposing offenses. Along with good coverage and tackling, the Utes’ strategy also leaves the door open for penalties and turnovers that can swing the field or pin opposing teams back very deep indeed.
Is it working?
Without even doing the math, a quick look at the Utes’ kickoff numbers shows that this is a decent strategy for them. They’ve only given up a kick return past the 35 four times, and have only let the opponent past the 40 once (that touchdown return from ASU). The average starting field position for opponents on kickoffs which do not result in a touchback is the 24.96 yard line, which suggests that the Utes aren’t losing anything, at least. The Utes have created three penalties and a turnover on kick returns, and given up one touchdown. Overall, the Utes have given up only 36 points on 47 kickoffs (.76 points per drive); clearly they are putting their defense in positions where it has the opportunity to be effective.
We can do better than just look at average field position, however. Every field position has an expected point value, based on the 2013 average performance from that spot. These numbers allow us to compute the point value of a kickoff return as compared to a touchback on each return. The 25 yard line is worth an average of 1.82 points for the offense, so we can evaluate the differential between a touchback and the result of the Utes’ play. This is an even footing to compare and add together every kickoff.
If the Utes had touched back on every single kickoff, they would have created an expected point total for their opponent of 85.54 points. As it is, they’ve created an expected point total of 80.78 points. This means that the Utes’ strategy has been about five points for the team over the course of the season; a yard or two seems incremental, but over the course of dozens of drives it adds up.
A big chunk of that expected value comes from four swing plays. The Utes have created penalties on three kickoff returns, pinning teams at the 13, 11, and 10. They also forced a fumble against Fresno, a massive swing in expected points that cost the Bulldogs the 2.01 expected points they would have picked up from the drive and granted the Utes 3.92 expected points for having only thirty yards between them and the end zone. These plays were worth 8.86 expected points more than four touchbacks would have been. They more than make up for the Utes one true failure in kick coverage, a touchdown return that cost the team 5.18 expected points.
These aren’t huge things, but they are demonstrative of what has allowed the Utes to get to where they are, in position to make a run at a national championship. Rather than being extraordinary in any particular area, the Utes have made an art out of picking up every small advantage on a consistent basis. These few yards on every play don’t look like a lot, but Utah gets them with such consistency that they add up to solid margins of victory at the end of every game. Will that be enough to beat Arizona? It’s been enough to beat almost everyone else.
Advanced Metrics Overview
The Utes have settled in at this point, and are what they are. Elite defense, solid offense. The difference between this Utes team and years past is that ‘solid’ instead of ‘lousy’. The Wildcats injuries are showing on defense; Arizona is the worst defensive team the Utes have faced. Solid should be plenty good enough for the Utes to score at will.
Arizona can score, but what they can’t do is stop anyone. It doomed them last week against USC, as the Trojans were able to move down the field with ease throughout the final quarters and make up a sizeable deficit. Utah’s no USC on the offensive side, but when you’re as bad as Arizona is, all you need is a baseline level of competence to put up plenty of points. The Utes have been better than that this year. While the ‘cats offense is excellent, it isn’t a Baylor-type unit that scores almost every time it gets the ball, so they haven’t been able to blow away their opponents with TD after TD. The Utes defense is championship-caliber; while they won’t be able to stop the Wildcats every time. Against other championship-caliber defenses (Stanford and Washington, both on the road), they averaged ten points per game. Utah will slow them down plenty.
Vegas and the polls
Vegas started out really liking the Utes on the road, giving them 6 points. The line has moved to 4.5, suggesting that despite whooping the spread last week, the smart money bettors are still going against the Utes. This money usually mirrors advanced metrics, so this result is a little surprising; there’s fifty or more spots in the rankings between Arizona and Utah. Even on the road that should be plenty. The Utes held steady at 13th in the Massey ratings, and Arizona ranks 69th.
I’ve been struggling with this one all week. I hate to pick the Utes to house the Wildcats, given the struggles they’ve had the last few years, but that’s what the numbers are telling me to do. The Utes should be able to slow down the Wildcats plenty, and I think we’ll see plenty of "good Wilson" as he picks apart a deeply flawed and injury riddled Arizona defense. It’s on the road, and that excellent spread rush attack is going to gouge our guys from time to time, but overall the D will hold. I can't bring myself to pick the blowout I ought to pick, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Utes win by more than two scores.