Sack Lake City, Population... 2?
The Utes lead the nation in sacks and sacks per game last year, earning the fear and respect of offensive coordinators who wanted their quarterbacks to stay in one piece. Nate Orchard was the mayor, but the Utes have plenty of talent along the front seven in 2015. The Utes have not lived up to that expectation, with only two sacks recorded in its first two games. Last year, the Utes had gotten to the QB eleven times by now. So what’s going on?
Although some have said that the Utes are not blitzing as much as they used to, they are still throwing extra pass rushers at the passer frequently. While the Utes don’t blitz as often as some teams, they have sent 5 or more at the passer on 26.8% of pass plays, plenty to generate some sacks. I did notice in reviewing film that they weren’t running any stunts (where pass rushers change positions and attempt to confuse the blockers just after the snap). It remains to be seen whether that will carry over into conference play or if the Utes are holding back more sophisticated strategies for more important games.
What does appear to have changed from last year is the way that teams are scheming to stop the pass rush. The base offensive formation that Michigan runs has two additional blockers in addition to the five offensive linemen: a running back behind the QB under center and a tight end at the line. Michigan utilized at least one additional blocker on 42.8% of their plays two weeks ago. USU’s base offense has a running back with Keeton in the backfield and four wide receivers; just one extra blocker. They had an additional blocker in on 79% of their plays against the Utes.
This extra personnel wasn’t always used to block the pass rush, but it is representative of how much credit offensive coordinators are giving the defensive line. Extra blockers in the backfield means free defenders deep, and several of the Ute’s interceptions have been the result of these extra players being free to wait over the top of a receiver or come in underneath as the pass was thrown.
Although the Utes haven’t racked up a ton of sacks or tackles in the backfield, they are still getting significant pressure. The Utes have hurried the passer 34 times, and landed a solid hit on him 15 of those times.* 3 of the Utes’ interceptions have come on hurried passes (both of Marcus Williams’ grabs and the Gionni Paul pick that put the last nail in Utah State’s coffin on Friday). The pass rush is paying significant dividends because teams are forced to adjust their schemes to account for the Utes’ four blitzers. The Utes don’t rush more because having the extra defenders on the field allows for better coverage of hot routes and the opportunity for interceptions.
The sacks will come against teams who are either a) committed to the philosophy that their five linemen can handle our four linemen or b) willing to let their quarterback take punishment in return for yards. I suspect we’ll see more of the former as we get into conference play, and Utah got its first taste of the latter in Utah State’s final two drives, where they dialed down the protection, got more yards, and had their QB hit five times and sacked twice with two forced fumbles. If Fresno wants to have any hope of gaining yards, they are going to have to take a similarly aggressive approach. This game is a get-right opportunity for the Utes’ sack numbers.
Good golly. Last year was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but this looks like a two year endeavor, as Fresno is projected to rely on a lot of young talent all over the field. They were bad last year and return 64% or less of every area. They are breaking in either a new or an almost new quarterback, new receivers, and have to find answers in every level of the defense. They do return an exciting, high-end tailback who can catch passes and run the ball explosively, but that’s about it. They are also replacing last year’s starting guards, so the interior of the line may be a weakness.
The Utes destroyed the Bulldogs last year, and the gap may have widened over the offseason. Take it easy on these poor guys.
The Bulldogs are doomed.
This is the last week I’ll place more of my confidence in my returning stats analysis than in the existing advanced metrics. In either case, though, the Utes are looking at an opponent who they can expect to dominate in every phase of the game. The Bulldogs project to be the worst team the Utes face all year, although that could change (lookin’ at you, OSU). There’s no reason to expect much of a contest here.
Vegas and the polls
It took a while before Vegas released any lines, waiting until there was more clarity on the injury situation with the Utes. Vegas Insider has the game as having opened at -10 for the Utes and moved to -14. These are very conservative lines for this game, and is likely related to the probability that Kendal Thompson will start at QB. Massey’s ratings aggregator, which collects polls and analytical rankings and averages them out, has the Utes all the way up at 22nd while the Bulldogs are a woeful 96th.
The final result of this game is not realistically in doubt. Fresno was hopeless against the Utes last year and has seen their starting lineup taken to pieces by graduation and transfer. The Utes are going to win, the only question is by how much.
The buzz around the program is that Travis Wilson could potentially play, but that he will be withheld because the Utes have no need of his skillset against this team. Kendal Thompson’s abilities are more than up to the challenge Fresno will provide, and the first team defense should be able to completely stifle Fresno’s offense. I'm looking forward to seeing a few series out of Chase Hansen and some big numbers from Devontae Booker. Ute fans should see second team units in by the third quarter, and the Utes will likely pitch a shutout or close to it at least while the ones are on the field.
What’s going to make this game especially painful is Utah’s second team defense. Usually, things soften up a bit when the twos come in and the underdog can put up a few touchdowns. The Utes’ second string team is only a hair below the first, and I expect the Bulldogs to struggle to put any points on the board at all.
Utah 35, Fresno State 6.
*QB hurries are a very subjective stat. I counted a play as a hurry if the quarterback had to leave the pocket to evade pressure or appeared to get rid of the ball before his targeted receiver was ready, as long as the play wasn’t a designed roll out or screen where D linemen were intended to be allowed into the backfield unblocked. I wouldn’t use these stats to compare to any other team, but they are good as a way of understanding the Utes’ performance relative to themselves.