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Pick Six Previews: A statistical look back on the 2022 season for the Utes

Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III (1) steps in front of Oregon State Beavers wide receiver John Dunmore (14) for a pick six as Utah and Oregon State play at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III (1) steps in front of Oregon State Beavers wide receiver John Dunmore (14) for a pick six as Utah and Oregon State play at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah defended its Pac-12 title in style by rallying from a 14-point deficit to eventually embarrass playoff-candidate USC. Back-to-back Power Five conference titles is a heck of an accomplishment for any program, but especially one that a decade ago was transitioning up from the non-AQ level.

While their return trip to Pasadena ended in another Rose Bowl loss, Utah's 2022 team will forever be enshrined in Utes lore for their title performance in Las Vegas. Before looking ahead to 2023 — and Utah's pursuit of the rare Pac-12 three-peat — I'll review how the Utes ranked in several of my metrics at Pick Six Previews.

Game Grader: 10th of 66 Power Five (compared to No. 7 in 2021)

Game Grader measures statistical dominance and adjusts for opponent strength. The 2022 team finished fifth in Utah's all-time history, trailing only the 2004, 2008, 2019, and 2021 teams. This score was good for 10th in Power Five and marks their third Top 10 finish in the past four years.

The decisive 26-point win over Oregon State appreciated in value as the Beavers notched a 10-win season. Utah handled the Pac-12's non-bowl teams Stanford (by 35), Arizona (by 25), and Colorado (by 42) with an average yardage margin of +300. Then, of course, the best Game Grade of the season came in the title game, as Utah outpaced USC 44-7 after the early deficit.

Offensive percentiles: 26th of 66 Power Five (compared to No. 17 in 2021)

When the "total offense" stat is presented in yards per game, it doesn't tell the whole story — 500 yards gained against Georgia is much different than 500 yards gained against Vanderbilt; additionally, 500 yards gained on 80 snaps is less impressive than 500 gained on 50 snaps.

Instead, my offensive percentiles evaluate on a per-play basis and also adjust for opponent (defense) strength. Utah finished just outside the Top 25, and the year-over-year decline was partly related to injuries at the skill positions.

Before Rising's injury (the Washington State scratch), Utah was in the Top 15 of this metric, but the ranking dropped to 40th over the back half of the season. Then factor in the loss of do-it-all star Brant Kuithe and some missed time by Dalton Kincaid, the running back room, and Rising's injury in the Rose Bowl. Compared to what their opposing defenses allow on average, Utah still managed to out-perform 11 of 14.

Defensive percentiles: 33rd of 66 Power Five (compared to No. 16 in 2021)

There was a midseason shift in the opposite direction on this side of the ball. The defensive version of the above metric shows a decline for Utah year-over-year but doesn't paint the full picture. At the time of the bye week, Utah's defense was ranked 49th out of 66 Power Five programs, but the younger defense grew up in October and November to place in the Top 10 over the second half of the season.

That is plenty of momentum heading into the 2023 season.

Offensive line run push: 4th of 131 FBS teams (compared to No. 2 in 2021)

This stat takes the normal yards per carry number and focuses in on the opportunities created by the offensive line within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Beyond 10 yards, you could argue those yards are more earned by the back's playmaking ability in the open field. Utah landed another Top 5 finish here, the only program in America to do so.

Huge congrats to offensive line coach Jim Harding and his O-Block.

Offensive line pass protection: 13th of 131 FBS teams (compared to No. 3 in 2021)

Utah allowed just 15 sacks out of 446 pass attempts. That 3.4% sack percentage is 13th in FBS, seventh in Power Five, and third in the Pac-12 behind nation-leading Oregon (1.2%) and Washington (1.3%). Utah is one of just six programs to post consecutive Top 15 finishes in pass protection.

Explosive rushing (Offense): 20th of 131 FBS teams (compared to No. 11 in 2021)

Utah was ranked 40th here at the break and improved to finish in the Top 20. Part of that boost was the rise of converted quarterback Ja'Quinden Jackson, who averaged 100 rushing yards per game over the final three games, with a high 8.4 per-carry average over that span. Jackson is a natural athlete and looks more acclimated at the new position each game.

Negative play rate (Defense): 9th of 131 FBS teams (compared to No. 21 in 2021)

Negative play rate measures the frequency of plays made behind the line of scrimmage (sacks and tackles for loss) in proportion to number of snaps faced.

In my midseason stat feature, I was surprised at Utah's No. 44 ranking in this metric.

Known as "Sack Lake City" for their trend of leading the conference in sacks, Utah tends to own this category. After the bye week, the defense rounded into form to surge back into the national Top 10. Over the first six FBS games, Utah averaged 5.3 TFL per game and closed on a 7.3 TFL per game pace over the final seven games.

Opponent QB rating (Defense): 85th of 131 FBS teams (compared to No. 53 in 2021)

I prefer this stat when discussing passing defense, because it puts the stats into a per-play perspective. Giving up 300 passing yards may sound below average, but against an Air Raid offense that attempts 60 passes that game, it becomes impressive.

Here in the all-encompassing pass defense measure, Utah took a step back from the 2021 team. Not shown here, but Utah's secondary continued its nation-best streak of seasons with a pick six. The 2022 season marks 19 straight seasons — all the way back to when Morgan Scalley was playing — of Utah with a pick six.

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Brett Ciancia is the owner of Pick Six Previews, a college football preview magazine graded as the "Most Accurate Season Preview" since 2012 (via Stassen). Ciancia was named a Heisman Trophy voter in 2019 and was invited to the FWAA's All-America Team selection committee in 2020.


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