Utah’s passing game was not good last year, especially by the second half of the season. Both quarterbacks and the vast majority of the wide receiver corps are out the door, and it’s virtually impossible to project with any confidence what the new passing game will look like.
What we can analyze is where Utah landed last year, and what needs to change to bring them to the next level. There are crude approaches like passing yards per game or completion percentage, but those measures lack precision and, while they are easy to think about, don’t mean as much as we wish they did. Using advanced metrics, the answer emerges: Utah needed to make 18 more plays. 18 more completions in the right places are the difference between Utah’s lackluster passing game of 2015 and a dynamic offense that coordinators have to take into account.
“Success rate” is a core idea in advanced metrics. The idea is that a play can be graded as either a success or a failure, and it’s based on percentage of available yards gained. 50% of first down yardage, 70% of second down, and 100% of yardage on third and fourth down. A four yard run on 1st and ten is a failure, a six yard pass on 2nd and 8 is a success.
I took every offensive play Utah made in 2015 and broke them down across a number of variables. Utah’s 43.1% overall success rate was good for 46th in the country- not terrible, but not good. When you break it down more completely, a particular subset of plays stands out. On passing downs (2nd, 3rd, or 4th down and 5 or more yards), the Utes’ offense only managed a 35.9% success rate. Passing downs are tough situations; the offense is backed into a corner and the defense has a pretty good idea what they are going to do.
Utah’s passing play success rate on non-passing downs, meanwhile, was 50.6%. This large disparity means that when Travis Wilson was expected to pass, he couldn’t make it work. The passing offense’s numbers were padded in low-stress situations. This is why the overall numbers look decent, but the feel of watching the game as a fan was brutal. Every time the Utes really needed a play, they couldn’t deliver.
18 more successful plays on passing downs would tick the success rate up on passing plays by 5%. Overall, it would bring the Utes up a couple of points, from 46th nationally to 25th. A few more passing down successes look like this:
2nd and 10, UCLA 33 (4Q 1:46): Travis Wilson connects with Tyrone Smith for 8 yards, allowing Joe Williams to pick up the first down and getting a legitimate shot at the end zone and overtime.
2nd and 7, Arizona 8 (OT): Instead of taking a 9 yard sack, Travis Wilson throws a six yard route and sets up the game winning touchdown.
3rd and 10, Utah 35 (2Q 11:09): Instead of a long interception return, Wilson threads the needle and picks up a first down. Instead of seven free points for the Trojans, the Utes kick a field goal and enter half time at 20-21, the game well within reach.
These are the kinds of critical plays that win tough games, and Utah didn’t make enough of them last year. Everything else can stay the same. 18 more plays on passing downs is a playoff-caliber team.