As the decade comes to a close — thankfully enough for the Texas Longhorns football program — head coach Tom Herman’s team will take on the No. 11 Utah Utes in San Antonio at the 2019 Valero Alamo Bowl.
The challenge is significant for 7-5 Texas, as Utah ranks No. 12 in offensive SP+ and No. 10 in defensive SP+ following a Pac-12 title game loss to Oregon. The 37-15 win for the Ducks provided a template for beating the Utes, as difficult as it may be to replicate.
In that game, Oregon ran for 239 yards on 41 and three touchdowns, a full 26 percent of all the rushing yardage and 43 percent of all the rushing touchdowns allowed by Morgan Scalley’s defense. The Ducks also intercepted two passes from Tyler Huntley to win the turnover battle.
However, the overall body of work suggests that the championship game was the extreme outlier for head coach Kyle Whittingham’s program this season and that’s not great news for Texas.
A paragon of stability, Whittingham is a former BYU linebacker who has spent his entire coaching career in the region, only leaving the state of Utah for the six seasons that he spent at Idaho State.
In 1994, Whittingham left Idaho State and took his first job at Utah, heading to Salt Lake City to become the defensive line coach. He’s been there ever since, taking over the defense the next season and then remaining in that position until he took over as head coach for Urban Meyer after the undefeated regular season in 2004 that ended with Whittingham making his head coaching debut in a Fiesta Bowl win over PItt.
With a 131-63 record as a head coach, Whittingham has overseen the transition from the Mountain West to the expanded Pac-12 Conference. The Utes didn’t manage a winning conference record until his fifth season in the league and the 2017 season represented a step back, but the program looks like it’s peaking this season at some key positions — the quarterback, running back, leader in sacks, stalwart defensive tackle, and three of the four leading tacklers are all seniors.
Utah is in its first season under offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, a college football stalwart who ran his first offense at Cal Poly in 1997 and is now in his second stint under Whittingham in Salt Lake City. In between his first offensive coordinator gig and his return to Utah, Ludwig has coordinated offenses at Oregon, Cal, Wisconsin, and Vanderbilt.
He’s known for his adaptability, flexibly building his offensive schemes around the strengths of the players at hand — he’s even kept an old playbook after taking over a new job.
Ludwig returned after Troy Taylor navigated injuries to Huntley and starting running back Zach Moss last season, then took over at the Sacramento State head coach. He’s now the ninth play caller in the 11 seasons since his first stint with the Utes.
Unsurprisingly, improved health has allowed for a seamless return — Utah improved from No. 45 in offensive SP+ to 12th nationally, scoring 34 points per game with high-level efficiency on third down (47.8 percent) and a solid touchdown percentage in the red zone (67.9 percent).
As former Texas quarterback Cameron Rising sits out due to NCAA transfer rules, Utah is led by Huntley, the senior quarterback around whom Ludwig has built the offense, and Moss, the senior running back who is averaging 6.2 yards per carry on his way to 1,359 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns this season. On Tuesday, Moss was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.
The wide receivers also get involved in the running game — three different players at the position have scored touchdowns this season.
Huntley is second nationally in completion percentage at 73.7 percent, behind only LSU’s Joe Burrow. Despite the gap of more than four percentage points in completion percentage, both players are averaging 10.7 yards per attempt. Huntley hasn’t thrown nearly as many touchdown passes — 48 to 18 — but the two interceptions against Oregon last week represent half of his season total. Huntley has done an excellent job protecting the football.
Under Ludwig, Huntley has more responsibility at the line of scrimmage, while the wide receivers have less responsibility after the snap, running fewer option routes than they did last season.
More pre-snap movement has helped put extra pressure on defenses and produced a breakout season for sophomore tight end Brant Kuithe, who leads Utah in receptions (31), receiving yards (572 yards), and receiving touchdowns (six). He’ll present a matchup problem for the Longhorns.
The offensive line struggles in power success rate and standard downs sack rate, ranking in the 100s in both categories, but ranks No. 6 in opportunity rate and has been good on passing downs. Utah has been average overall in sacks allowed, but ranks tied for 74th in tackles for loss allowed.
Given the overall stability of Whittingham’s program, it’s no surprise that his defensive coordinator is one of his former players, Morgan Scalley, a safety on that undefeated 2004 team, who hasn’t coached anywhere else in his career. Consider him Utes for life, a belief backed up by the contract extension that he just signed after coaching one of the nation’s best units.
Scalley wasn’t just another safety, he was a captain, Mountain West co-Defensive Player of the Year, and MWC Scholar of the Year. Quite a combination.
Ranked No. 10 nationally in defensive SP+, Utah dropped four spots after the season’s worst performance against Oregon, but it’s still an impressive group that will be the best Texas has faced all season. In fact, Whittingham put it in rare air this week.
“We’re senior-laden on defense, but not on offense,” he said on the Alamo Bowl conference call. “We have very few seniors on offense, but defensively we do have a bunch of seniors particularly in the front. We have three guys we think are as good as any defenders we’ve ever had here. We feel like we have our best defense at the University of Utah, at least since I’ve been here and that’s a while.”
For perspective, Whittingham has been there for 25 years.
Utah’s defense ranks fourth nationally in yards per carry, fourth in yards per play, and eighth in success rate. By ranking No. 7 in third-down defense and forcing 12 turnovers, the Utes have been able to get off the field and limit big plays. It doesn’t rely on negative plays, ranking tied for 57th in tackles for loss, but it is highly effective nonetheless.
As part of Scalley’s duties, he still coaches the safeties, a productive group on the back end of his 4-2-5 defense that features seniors Terrell Burgess and Julian Blackmon. Five players earned first-team All-Conference honors on the defense, including Blackmon, who recorded 60 tackles, four tackles for loss, four interceptions, four passes broken up, and two forced fumbles.
At cornerback, senior Jaylon Johnson earned All-Conference honors with an interceptions and 11 passes broken up alongside former Texas target Javelin Guidry. A California native, Guidry finished his high school career in Cedar Park, earning recognition as one of the state’s fastest players before picking Utah and becoming a part-time starter at nickel back during his freshman season. He’s remained in the starting lineup ever since.
Francis Bernard also made the All-Conference first team thanks to 7.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions, while sophomore Devin Lloyd led the team in tackles with 85 and also notched nine tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and an interception. The Texas offensive line will have to account for both of them in the running game and the passing game.
Up front, Herb Hand’s group will have to deal with two more All-Conference players — senior defensive end Bradlee Anae and senior defensive tackle Leki Fotu. Anae is an excellent pass rusher, as his 12.5 accounted for nearly the entirety of his 13.5 plays behind the line of scrimmage. A massive 6’5, 335-pounder, Fotu had 7.5 tackles for loss, so he’ll be a load for Texas senior center Zach Shackelford and the interior line to contain.
At No. 72 nationally in special teams SP+, the third phase is the outlier for the Utes. Utah does have a punt return for a touchdown, but hasn’t been good on kickoff returns at 111th, and even worse punting.
Like Texas, Utah relied on an Australian punter for years and Mitch Wisnowsky was one of the nation’s best — he was a three-time All-American and three-time Ray Guy Award finalists, earning honors as the nation’s top punter in 2016. This year, freshman Ben Lennon has struggled, resulting in the Utes ranking No. 120 in punting average.
The Utes haven’t blocked any punts or kicks and are average on field goals at 70 percent. Whittingham has only attempted 14 on the season compared to 24 fourth-down attempts — like the punter, the place kicker, Jadon Redding, is a freshman and has only attempted two kicks from longer than 40 yards, making one from 42 yards. He’s missed two attempts between 30 and 39 yards.
To beat Utah, Texas will have to do the types of things that opponents have struggled with this season — turning over the Utes, staying on the field on offense, and getting off the field on defense. The Longhorns should have an advantage in special teams and pick up some points or yardage in that phase, but will also have to find ways to produce explosive plays on offense against an elite defense.
It will be a tough task down two coordinators as Texas seeks its season-defining win.