While Utah has a definable advantage on defense vs the BYU offense, when Utah has the ball is the matchup Utah fans are looking forward to, and BYU fans who’ve been paying attention probably have some trepidation about.
While their DL has generally been pretty good inside – putting Utah transfer Khyris Tonga in the NFL, for example – the DEs have been a little less formidable, recently. Their Linebackers have been solid: good at reading their keys, active, aggressive. The Safeties have typically not been highly athletic, but very good at reading the play and being in position to make plays. Cornerback is where they have struggled historically, though recently they’ve gotten much more athletic, deeper and are better than they were 5-10 years ago.
BYU’s defense provokes a lot of criticism from fans, who get frustrated at DC Ilaisa Tuiaki and the “Drop 8” philosophy, which as it implies, drops 8 men into zone coverage, where they can read the play and converge, come up to plug holes at the LOS, etc. As a “bend don’t break” philosophy, it’s understandable how this drives fans anxiety levels upward, with fairly easy movement between the 20s, and things getting tighter closer to the endzone.
Against Arizona this coverage left receivers or RBs out of the backfield wide open on the flanks, and under a new head coach Arizona’s offense accumulated over 400 yards, despite giving a lot of yardage back on QB sacks where it was apparent the young QB hadn’t mastered the art of getting rid of the football instead of giving up 15 yards of field position.
Because of the stakes in this game, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sitake gets involved in the defensive game plan, and lets former DC Ed Lamb make some defensive calls. We’ll see some Drop 8, a lot of blitzes, uneven pressure packages, we’ll see everything they have.
It’s no secret that Utah in the PAC era under Whittingham has been a run-first offense, emphasizing physicality and ball control, limiting turnovers but also not providing a lot of highlights through the aerial attack. That began to change in 2019 as QB Tyler Huntley had a great year as the Utes went to the PAC championship game for the 2nd consecutive year. Utah rose in the polls and was in the playoff conversation into November.
Besides raising our national stature, giving the senior Huntley fairly wide latitude to make plays downfield through the air seems to have signaled that Whitt realizes that getting to the next level requires an explosive offense to pair with Utah’s impressive defense.
Charlie Brewer doesn’t match Huntley’s athleticism, but has nearly 10,000 yards of passing, has demonstrated a cool demeanor and a very accurate arm. Having an accurate QB opens the possibilities for what Utah can achieve offensively – throwing into coverage becomes less risky if the QB can deliver the ball within a 4 square foot target, consistently, where historically, the risk/reward ratio was high enough to inhibit those throws.
O-line – the Utes OL is both veteran & a little banged up coming out of camp. Depending on who heals up for the BYU game and how well the group gels, I expect they’ll be fine vs BYU, but maybe not dominant. The group played a clean game in Week 1 with no false starts, and kept pressure off Brewer impressively. Doing that vs a more talented opponent that is determined to break a streak will be more difficult.
Running Backs – JC transfer Tavion Thomas #9 was a highlight in Game 1, manifesting why the coaches in camp were singing his praises, getting over 100 yards and 2 TDs, but Micah Bernard #2 was also effective, getting 35 yards on just 6 carries. We saw less of TJ Pledger #5 and Chris Curry #0, but both demonstrated the talent that got them signed by Oklahoma and LSU, respectively.
Wide Receivers – losing both Samson Nacua and Bryan Thompson was a blow, but that was offset by the arrival of talented veteran Theo Howard #1, and the return of jet-quick Jaylen Dixon #25. Solomon Enis #21 appears poised to build upon his hard work, getting a TD in Game 1, Brit Covey #16and budding talent Devaughn Vele #17 round out the top 5 WRs.
Tight Ends – this is where Utah has accumulated an embarrassment of riches, with traditional blocking TE Cole Fotheringham #89 and the swiss army knife Brant Kuithe #80 have been joined by equally talented Dalton Kincaid #85. Kincaid was a sensation in Game 1 with two TDs.
Together, these pieces together translate into more flexibility than OC Andy Ludwig has had at Utah. • Whether it’s running back by committee, or situational personnel placement, the RBs have enough talent together to be a threat to eat up yardage, with substantial big play ability. Thomas was the anchor on his HS state champion 4×100 team, which explains the impressive speed he has for a back who is north of 225 lbs. Micah Bernard has demonstrated impressive vertical acceleration, and is athletic enough to play WR, if need be. • In the air game, Brewer’s performance in camp has energized the WRs, who now understand if they can get any amount of separation, Brewer can deliver the ball. The TEs are ready to exploit zone openings in the middle, or for Kuithe or Kincaid, go deep.
How things may go on Saturday
The first part of the rivalry game is typically a feeling out period, where jabs are thrown to see how the defense reacts, and the defenses having great energy to try and get off the field & force a punt. This year may be different. Utah’s athletic advantage combined with Brewer’s decision making and accuracy might mean Ludwig looks to do damage early.
Regardless, I expect Brewer will face pressure to deliver the ball early, which with the right blocking call could open up the middle run game, will open up the screen game – to RBs, WRs and TEs – and could create one on one situations outside with our WRs vs their corners, who don’t play a lot of man coverage. Jaylen Dixon is exceedingly difficult to cover in the open field, for one option.
Normally we use the run to setup the pass, but this year I can see the opportunity to reverse the normal course. Once BYU’s defense has been loosened up a little, this is where the talent differential may become apparent. If Utah can sustain drives, I expect Tavion Thomas to do substantial damage to BYU’s run defense, and they’ll abandon the Drop 8 strategy. Likewise, against a fatigued defense, we may see Micah Bernard’s burst get extended, potentially all the way to the endzone.
I think this will be Brewer’s coming out party, he’ll dissect their defense like they typically don’t experience. We can go with double TEs, to establish the run or to slow down the Drop/Rush 8 with short routes over the middle. Expect that to be complimented by getting the ball to our outside threats – Solo, Theo, Vele, Dixon & Covey. With sustained drives we’ll wear down their defense, and the 4th quarter could be a lot of Tavion Thomas picking up 5+ per carry.