Ohio State fell short of the college football playoff this year, but being the highest ranked Big Ten team has the Buckeyes off to Pasadena, Calif. to take on the Utah Utes. After getting exposed in a match up of physicality for a second time this season the Buckeyes will have a tough test against one of the more physical teams in college football. The Utah Utes are inbound to Pasadena on the backs of a strong finish culminating in a blowout win over the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game.
Today we’re going to take a short look at what to expect from Ohio State’s Rose Bowl opponent on offense defense. Philosophically, the Utes are a team who want to meet their opponent at the point of attack. Under Kyle Whittingham Utah has been able to establish an identity that has not failed them over the years. Offensively, the Utes have modernized and after the switch to quarterback Cameron Rising the offense really took off. The run game is the backbone of this offense and they have a good mix of ways they like to attack on the ground.
Defensively, the Utes play fast and physical with an emphasis on forcing turnovers. Under Whittingham defense has been the identity that has guided this Utah football team over the years. With star linebacker Devin Lloyd, a savvy defensive front, and a solid group of defensive backs, Utah has found their rhythm defensively down the stretch and average of 10 points over the last three games. Ohio State will need to be at their best if they are going to out perform this Utah defense. Ohio State is the most talented team Utah has faced this year, but Utah has shown that they can play with anyone. Today we’re going to look at some of their alignments defensively and what personnel they like to utilize on offensive.
Utah has maintained a strong identity under Kyle Whittingham using a classic 4-3 look with multiple coverages. They rely on an athletic front seven to impact both the run game and passing games for their opponents. This alignment relies on having versatile linebackers who can do multiple jobs and defensive backs that can do multiple things coverage wise. To get started let’s take a look at the alignment of Utah.
In the picture below we can see Utah’s base defense against a 11-personnel which Ohio State runs most of their offense through. This play they are in man-coverage with a single high safety, you can tell by the free safety being aligned in the center of the offensive formation. The corners and strong safety line up over the three receivers. The Sam-linebacker lines up to the boundary side and the Will-linebacker is responsible for the tight end in coverage. Utah runs a mix of Cover-1, Cover-3, and some combo looks, so look for them to utilize some safety movement pre-snap to confuse C.J. Stroud. This is a standard alignment, but the Buckeyes haven’t seen many teams who have utilized this defensive front. The Ute defense is fast and physical, but the most noticeable aspect is how disciplined they are. This won’t be a small task for the Buckeyes.
The second look we’re going to see from Utah is their quarters coverage look. Oregon lines up with an empty-backfield, but with a condensed bunch formation on the left side. This is a formational check coverage, so expect this a lot against empty when Ohio State motions out the running back. Utah tries to disguise this, but the corner on the bunch side is a dead giveaway that this is a zone coverage. By facing the play and not aligning over a receiver this shows how they are in zone. The strong safety to the bunch side shows Cover-3 depth, but retreats when the ball is snapped. Both safeties split the hashes taking the middle quarter zones. The Sam Linebacker lines up splitting the offensive line and the slot receiver showing that he is in a zone responsibility. This shows how multiple the coverages are in the Utah defense and this is going to take some additional preparation from the coaching staff.
Utah is a standard spread power-running team who relies on a veteran running back, game manager at quarterback, and they utilize a lot of tight end sets. The Utes lineup in both the shotgun and under center which gives them a lot of different ways to attack.
In the picture below we can see the Utah offense in its standard trip set out of 11-personnel. The tight end can line up off the ball or on the ball depending on what type of play Utah is running. If the tight end is off the ball expect him to move around a lot with shifts pre-snap or motions. The receivers are split out with a standard trips alignment with the outside receivers between the number and the sideline, and the slot receiver just outside the hash. This is standard base look for the offense, but expect a lot of movement from a lot of players pre-snap.
Utah uses a lot of 12-personnel as well, especially in obvious run situations. They are not scared to throw out of their two tight end looks, but most of the time when they have two tight ends in the game you can key in on the run game. In this personnel look they have done a great job of establishing physicality and their run game has shown a willingness to grind out yards on the ground.
In the picture below, Utah lines up with two tight ends to the field side in a bunch look. When you see the defensive alignment Utah has numbers between the tackles, despite the Oregon defense condensing. This formation opens up multiple looks and shows how the Utes try to confuse defenses with their alignment. For Ohio State they will need to remain disciplined and trust their keys as this is just a classic 12-personnel look with some altered alignments. The Ducks weren’t able to match the physicality in these looks and Utah was able to run the ball up and down the field.
As we discussed in the formation pictures Utah lines up and shifts players around pre-snap at a high percentage. There are a few reasons teams motion/shift pre-snap including forcing a coverage check, creating confusion with assignments, or to gain numbers advantages to certain areas of the field. Ohio State has had a lot of problems with teams who rely on a power run game when the opposing offense creates confusion up front. Utah does this extremely well and this will be one of the more interesting parts of the schematic match up between the two teams.
In the first look, we are going to see not only a shift, but a motion on top of the shift. The first thing we see here is Utah lined up in an 11-personnel Quads set. All four pass catchers are lined up to the left side of the field. They first shift over the tight end and then they motion across the receiver into a pass route. This changes the defenses plan not once, but twice creating a conflict to the right side of the defense that started with no receivers. Oregon is a disciplined defensive team, but all these motions led to them getting caught out of place. The quarterback misses the throw here, but overall this is the type of constant movement Utah utilizes to create match up issues.
We wouldn’t be talking about Utah if we didn’t have to take a look at them under center as well. In the red zone Utah changes their formations a lot pre-snap giving them an opportunity to catch the defense off guard. WIth Ohio State relying on a 1-Technique Nose and 3-Technique Defensive Tackle, this can change the gap assignments and if the player plays the wrong responsibility this can lead to easy scores and short yardage conversions.
In the play below Utah lines up with one receiver and two tight ends to the short side of the field and one tight end to the field side. They shift over the one of the short side tight ends to the field side giving them an almost identical look to the opposite side. By doing this they change the strength of the formation meaning they have the opposing teams linebackers switched in most cases. If Ohio State remains in their 4-2-5 this can be the difference of having a linebacker or bullet to the side of the run action. The interesting thing about Utah is they run both towards the shift and away from the shift meaning you can’t fully key on the pre-snap movement. Shifts and motions have been a sign of bad news to come for the Buckeyes, so hopefully they prepare well because Utah will be looking to make a statement.
Oh, and they have a Devin Lloyd
Lastly, they have an absolute freak defensively and one of the best defensive players in college football. With a player like Devin Lloyd Utah is able to do a lot of things like blitzing, exotic coverages, and having a sideline to sideline run-stopper will create a lot of challenges for the Buckeyes. In the play below we see an unbelievable play from the linebacker that shows how physically gifted he is. If the Buckeyes are going to attack this defense, putting Devin Lloyd in conflict is probably a place to start, but without further adieu, an athletic pick six from one of the best defenders Ohio State will play this season.
Utah does a lot of things the same as the two teams who have beaten Ohio State do. They are a power football team offensively who relies on a lot of window dressing pre-snap to create confusion and match up problems for opposing defenses. Their personnel is no different than most of the teams on Ohio State’s schedule, but the Buckeyes will need to be comfortable in their assignments against all the movement up front.
Defensively, the Utes have a very tough identity that starts with their coach Kyle Whittingham and their defensive coordinator, former Ute safety Morgan Scalley. This team relies on a tough front seven anchored by Devin Lloyd at middle linebacker in the run-game. They bring a mix of blitzes and they rely on a mix of coverages. They check to certain formations so look for Ryan Day to try to attack those checks with motions and shifts. Ohio State will have another tough test and if they fall short the game will look very similar to the games against Michigan and Oregon.
Today we took a quick look at some of the basic information about Ohio State’s Rose Bowl opponent the Utah Utes on offense and defense. With the lead up to the game we will take some more in-depth looks at what they do coverage and play wise. To close this out, Utah will want to make this game a bar fight, so we will get to see what this Ohio State team is made of.