In our third look at Ohio State’s Rose Bowl opponent, we are going to take a deep dive into Utah’s offensive running game. The Utes are a physical football team and Ohio State’s defense has struggled against the physical football teams that they have played on their schedule. As a few of my co-workers have noted, this team is pretty much West Coast Michigan, which (if you want to put the most positive spin on things) means that Ohio State has a shot at redemption in the Rose Bowl.
Led by an Ohio native in Tavion Thomas at running back, Utah is a bruising football team. Since their loss to Oregon State, the coaching staff has made a commitment to establishing the run game and that lead to two huge wins over Oregon and Colorado to close out the regular season averaging 226 yards per game.
This is going to be the game-defining matchup for the Buckeye defense as their two losses have come against teams who have dominated in this aspect of the game. So, today we are going to take a look at how the Utes establish the running game, their use of the quarterback, and how they’re able to effectively run out of different formations.
Utah uses a mix of gap and zone schemes in their run game. Gap schemes are when the offensive line is trying to open up a specific hole for the running back, whereas in zone schemes, the blockers are responsible for specific areas. By using both, this gives them the ability to really challenge defenses in a lot of ways. The separator for Utah is that they are effective in both zone and gap schemes from under center as well as from the shotgun.
In the first play that we are going to look at, Utah lines up with single back set (with No. 9 Thomas in the backfield) with 13-personnel on the field — meaning that they have three tight ends in the game. This is the type of heavy set that Utah uses in all parts of the field, and gives them a numbers advantage against most teams in the box.
For most teams 3rd-and-4 is an obvious passing down, but Utah is not most teams. They motion the tight end across to take one of the UCLA defenders away from that side. Utah then pulls their right guard and brings the tight end back across with a cross block. The guard takes the immediate threat and kicks out the defensive end, which turns the tight end into a lead blocker through the hole.
Thomas then runs through an arm tackle showing his strength and the tight end impedes the linebackers enough to allow the back to score an easy touchdown.
In both Buckeye losses, teams that have exploited the power run game have utilized outside runs to put in the final dagger. Utah has done that exact thing to its opponents all season.
In the next play, we’re going to take a look at Utah running “outside zone” against UCLA. Utah up to this point has had a ton of success running the ball between the tackles against UCLA’s defense.
After a long scoring drive, they get the ball back quickly from UCLA and bring in their change of pace back T.J. Pledger (No. 5). Similar to the Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum relationship at Michigan, Pledger is the back who attacks the outside of the defense.
On this play, Utah is in 11-personnel — meaning one back on tight end. They hand the ball off with a stretch action, and after he takes the handoff, Pledger finds a lane from the zone blocking and that turns into an explosive play for the Utes.
After Cameron Rising took over at quarterback for Charlie Brewer, the Utes gained an extra offensive dimension. With inconsistent quarterback play from Rising in terms of the passing game, his ability to run has added an important balance to the offense; and his power in short yardage has become a third and fourth down weapon.
In the next clip, we’re going to see a familiar play that dates back to the J.T. Barrett days at Ohio State. Utah runs a quarterback power in 3rd-and-3; this is an effective call due to Rising’s mix of size and power.
Utah is in 11-personnel, the tight end wall-blocks the outside linebacker, the tackle goes straight up on the defensive end trying to turn him in, and the running back leads through the hole.
Rising is able to get the three yards with ease due to the blocking, as he is not hit until after he gets the first down. With the running back taking on lead blocking responsibilities, this means that Ohio State’s linebackers will have to read the QB-designed runs extremely quickly before they are completely taken out of the play.
The last base concept in Utah’s run game is the “zone read,” another play that Ohio State fans should remember from the Barrett Era. In a zone read, the offense is attacking a player in the box while gaining numbers to block everybody else.
Utah is in 12-personnel with one of the two tight ends in a wing set. The read player is UCLA’s defensive end to the short side of the field. After the ball is snapped, Utah’s tight end arc blocks around the defensive end leaving him as the read player; the inside zone action allows the quarterback to give or keep in this example.
The defensive end shuffles down to the running back, giving Utah’s QB an opportunity to pull and gain yards. UCLA ends up with every player in the box accounted for, leading to Rising running 15 yards before contact. This type of play has given Ohio State issues at times this season. If OSU can account for the quarterback and not give up any leverage in the box, they might be able to combat this. If not, it is bad news for the Buckeyes.
Utah is the type of team that has so far given the Buckeyes trouble this season due to their physical and diverse running game. Looking back at Ohio State’s two losses, the Buckeyes were not able to match the opponent’s toughness at the point of attack, and this led to teams having dominant ground performances against them. If Utah establishes the run early, we may end up rewatching versions of Ohio State’s games against Michigan or Oregon.
If they want to avoid repeats of those games, Ohio State will need to be prepared to match personnel and be ready to see a wide variety of different run concepts. Throughout the 2021 season, the Buckeyes have been exposed by teams built similarly to Utah, so this is a major opportunity to prove to the world that they can be a physical football team as well.
The Utes are going to try to beat Ohio State down with the running game to open up the passing game and find balance in the offense. It’s up to the Buckeyes to make Utah as one-dimensional as possible and force them into throwing the ball more than they would normally be comfortable with.
If the Buckeyes are going to win this game, they will need to be physical and show Utah that they won’t be pushed around. The Buckeyes can be who they’ve disappointedly shown themselves to be against good teams all season, or they can step up to the plate and begin writing the history for next season.