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SALT LAKE CITY — To put it bluntly, Utah’s offense has been mediocre since joining the Pac-12.
The offense has never been the highlight of the program despite having consistent producers at running back — guys that have been drafted to the NFL and have challenged Utah historical records. Still, Utah has been consistently average on the offensive side of the ball.
Even in 2018 when Utah scored an average of 41 points per game in the month of October, Utah’s offense finished the season with the 72nd best total offense (395.8 yds/g) and 75th best scoring offense (28.1 pts/g) nationally. That’s worse than the four seasons preceding it and mostly on par with the offenses since Kyle Whittingham was named head coach 14 years ago.
If you jump to the advanced metrics of S&P+ by Bill Connelly to gain some hope, a statistical metric that weighs five components of a team’s overall success, Utah finished with the 45th best offense in the country last season. It's an improvement for the program, but nowhere near on par with its defense or where the program wants to be long term.
For the 2019 season, though, Connelly predicts a near Top 25 offense — 27th in the nation to be exact — to pair with the 20th best defense in the country. Utah features a senior dual-threat quarterback that hit his stride before a season-ending injury last season, arguably one of the best running backs in the Pac-12 in Zack Moss, and a receiving corps with experience and depth.
But what will that offense look like and will it be any different than what former offensive coordinator Troy Taylor ran the last two seasons?
The short answer: Yes, Andy Ludwig’s offense will look different.
Ludwig believes the playmakers of the team should get the ball. It may sound like an oversimplification of a complex system, but the point of Ludwig’s offense is to scheme around his best players. The best athletes will be on the field and there will be every attempt made to get them the ball.
But you’re probably thinking: Isn’t that what every football team tries to do? Yes and no. Some offensive schemes stay consistent regardless of overall talent, such as the Air Raid, or the Triple Option that relies heavily on running the ball, and running it some more. Coaches recruit to that style of play, but there isn’t much variation.
Under Taylor, Utah was expected to be more of a pass-heavy team, while supplementing it with the run, similar to his days in the FCS ranks. The pass was used to set up the run, instead of relying on one of his best assets in Moss to open up the game.
That is until Whittingham stepped in midseason and made changes to the play-calling duties. Why? The offense wasn’t consistently getting the ball to its best playmaker.
In 2019, Utah will feature a run-first mentality, or as receiver coach Guy Holladay calls it, a “run to win mentality.”
“I personally think, this is just me, I think you’ve got to run the ball to win championships unless you just have elite talent at the quarterback position and elite talent at the receiver position,” Holladay said. “And there's very few teams that are like that. At the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to run the ball and stop the run. That's what wins championships. And that's going to always be in football.”
That doesn’t mean Utah will only run the ball, it’s that they’re using the run, and their best weapon, to set up the offensive game plan — a way to “set up the deep ball game and set up the play-action pass,” Holladay added. The offense can still be balanced 50-50 or somewhere near that number, but it will start with its best athlete on the field.
There will be more play-action passes, there will be the quarterback playing under center at times. There will be a huddle and a resulting slow down in play. The running back will have a receiving role that isn’t just on a screen pass, it will involve the tight ends in the receiving game.
In short, it will look more like an “NFL-type scheme,” according to receiver Jaylen Dixon.
“It’s just trying to put the best guys on the field to make the best plays,” Dixon said.
He added that having a strong cohort of running backs in the program is “the reason why we have this kind of scheme, which makes sense.” But it will also help the program open up the passing game and limit how teams can defend Utah.
Fortunately for Utah, Ludwig has a history of successfully scheming to his best players and putting points on the board. In his final season with Utah the first time as the program’s offensive coordinator, Utah averaged 36.9 points per game, which ranked 15th nationally — the highest of Whittingham’s tenure.
Only the 2010 season, in which Utah averaged 33.1 points and was ranked 24th nationally, comes close to the numbers Ludwig produced in his four seasons previously with the program.
Now with arguably more talent and depth, Ludwig has the makings for a much-improved offense and one worthy of its top-tier defense.