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Film Preview: A first look into Utah’s defense

Ohio State starts their final preparations for the Rose Bowl, so we take a quick look at how their opponent Utah plays defense.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Oregon vs Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State is headed to Pasadena, California to take on the Utah Utes in the Rose Bowl. This was not the expectation for Ohio State, and after coming off what feels like the biggest failure since the 2011 season with the loss against Michigan the Buckeyes should have plenty of motivation for this match up. After the offensive coordinator Josh Gattis talked to the media and talked about how the Buckeyes lacked physicality, the one match up I was interested in for a response from the Buckeyes was a game against Utah.

The Utes are led by Kyle Whittingham – who is one of the longest tenured coaches in college football – has built and rebuilt Utah’s identity multiple times. As Utah has transitioned into Power-5 football their recruiting strategies have evolved and Whittingham has built a program on the back of toughness and physicality. This is exactly how the defense for the Utes is built under Whittingham and Morgan Scalley, the defensive coordinator. Utilizing multiple looks, Ohio State’s offense will have to be well prepared schematically and ready to get into a bar fight.

Today, we’re going to look at some of the basics of the Utah defense to get you prepared for the game on New Year’s Day.


Alignment

Utah runs a base 4-3 defense with a traditional Sam, Mike, and Will linebacker grouping, as well as a strong safety, free safety, and two corners. The picture below shows Utah’s Cover-1 alignment against 11-personnel (one back, one tight end). Looking back at UCLA, they utilize a lot of the same personnel packages as Ohio State, so this gives us a good look at what we might see from Utah. UCLA motions two doubles and the cover-safety follows the slot receiver. The linebackers are at three different levels and the Mike is aways staggered. The Sam linebacker on the tight end side moves up and has the tight end in man-coverage. This is their base defense against 11-personnel.

The second alignment picture I want to look at is Utah in a one high shell (showing Cover-1) before they rotate to Cover-2. Utah utilizes multiple coverages, this picture shows the difference in the linebackers and safeties in zone. The linebackers are lined up in a straight line, in man they line up at different levels. The strong safety to the bunch side is showing he is in a robber zone, but pre-snap rotates back and drops into his zone of the deep half. The free safety takes the other half with both corners taking the flats. The use multiple shells to keep quarterbacks honest, but they are all coverages Ohio State has played before.


Run Game

Utah plays the run-game well and relies heavily on their best player Devin Lloyd to set the tone. We’re going to look at an outside zone look and inside zone look today. The Buckeyes will need their interior offensive line to be at their best and get to the second level if they’re going to run the ball effectively. Utah’s coverage alignment also gives some advantages in the run game if attacked correctly, if they are in zone and the Sam linebacker splits out that thins out the box. Ohio State can attack this and if they can block Devin Lloyd they can have a big day in the run game.


The first run action we’re going to look at is UCLA’s stretch run game against Utah’s defense. Once again UCLA is in 11-personnel, but this time they have the tight end and wide receiver to the field side while having their two receivers to the boundary.

UCLA’s offensive line is stretch blocking, so they are trying to reach the outside to seal in the defenders to give the running back the outside edge. UCLA’s offensive tackle (No. 74) seals off the end, but Utah’s Sam linebacker is able to set the edge. The UCLA running back bounces this outside and makes a decent gain on the run which is made possible by the formation out leveraging Utah. By having the tight end to the field side this condensed the box and gave the running back a lot of room to work with to the outside which he takes advantage of. If Ohio State is able to get up to the second level their stretch game can be a big play against opportunity.


Oregon’s run game was never able to fully get going against Utah which shows how good the Utah defense is against the run. Oregon is in 11-personnel with the tight end to the boundary side of the field. The Joe Moorhead offense for the Ducks uses triple option read principles which show with the motion across the formation.

The play starts with the Oregon receiver (No. 14) motioning across the formation into a line route. Once the ball is snapped Anthony Brown (No. 13) for Oregon faces the field side reading the defensive end to the motion. The defensive end sits and waits to play Brown as a runner, if the end crashes Brown would have pulled this ball. In bringing this up, C.J. Stroud has shown little indications of keeping, so expect the defensive ends to crash or be accounted for in the run game. The outside linebacker runs with (No. 14) making this play a give to the running back. Once the ball is handed off (No. 25) Oregon is able to get to the second level without contact and pick up a nice gain. Utah’s defense is good, but if you commit to the run game and aren’t scared to grind out some yards, they have shown that they do give up some big yards. The Buckeyes will need to establish the run game because Utah is a team that can just sit in the box and force you into mistakes. By getting into manageable yardage distances, Utah’s strengths can be cancelled out.


Pass-Coverage

Utah utilizes multiple coverage packages including Cover-1, Cover-2, Cover-3, and Cover-4 lining up in both two high and one high shells. By utilizing multiple coverages the Utes are able to disguise and confuse opposing quarterbacks. This means Ryan Day is going to have to be well prepared with multiple plans of attack. Utah is extremely disciplined and they play their techniques with a lot of consistency. Their bend not break style is extremely evident in their pass defense and they meet opposing receivers with physicality with an emphasis on rerouting receivers in route. We’re going to look at their Cover-1 and Cover-2 looks below.


The first play we’re going to look at is Utah’s Cover-2 against UCLA in the middle of the season, this is one of their most commonly used coverage coming from Morgan Scalley’s NFL background. To start looking at this play, the down and distance is 3rd-and-9 meaning this is an obvious passing down.

UCLA is in 11-personnel with the tight end to the short side as the lone receiver and trips to the field side. Utah lines up in Cover-2 with both safeties on the hashes splitting the field. The corners line up with outside leverage of the receivers and they are responsible for the zone in the flats. The outside receiver runs a spot route finding a hole in the zone, but Utah’s players rotate really closing windows quickly. This is where their discipline comes into play and they are able to stop UCLA short of the first down. This is a basic-coverage, but Utah does plays this exceptionally well.


The next play we’re going to get into is Utah in man-coverage, they are in Cover-1 in the play below. We are once again going to look at the UCLA game due to the similar personnel packages. UCLA is in 11-personnel with a tight end in, a running back, and three receivers.

We saw this play in the alignment section looking at how Utah shows their Cover-1 looks. In the play below we get to see what the coverage looks like in action. UCLA’s slot receiver (No. 2) comes across the screen and the Utah defender follows him across the formation indicating this is man-coverage. The free safety remains in the center of the formation and drops into the deep middle zone. The Sam linebacker is responsible for the tight end in man coverage, this can be a match up Ohio State tries to exploit. All players except the free safety have man responsibility and UCLA uses an out route to beat the inside leverage man-coverage. Utah will probably rely on their zone coverage and discipline against Ohio State, but they won’t be scared to mix in man-coverage to keep the Buckeyes guessing.


Conclusion

To begin wrapping this article up, Utah’s defense is not perfect, but they are an extremely disciplined team who are great on key downs. They use multiple coverages to create confusion for quarterbacks and do a great job disguising their coverage looks by rotating safeties. Against a team like Ohio State expect a lot of Cover-2 and Cover-4 to keep the elite Ohio State receivers in front of them. The Buckeyes will need to be patient and establish the run to get them out of these coverages to open up the downfield passing game.

Opponents have been able to find balance against Utah, but the issue that arises when playing Utah is they force their opponents into mistakes. We saw in the Oregon and UCLA games that a run game can be established. This needs to be a point of emphasis to not only keep balance in the offense, but to establish the physical tone that has been missing this season. This will be an opportunity to prove that the Buckeyes can be physical along with their normal explosive selves, but it all starts with balance.

Overall, we’re just getting started looking at Utah, but their discipline and technique pop immediately. They’re never misaligned, so the Buckeyes will have to utilize motions and shifts to try to get them off balance. Ohio State has the offense to attack the Utes, but Ryan Day will need to be at his best. If not we can get a repeat performance of that last Saturday in November.