Dating back to his days as the offensive coordinator with the Ohio State Buckeyes, head coach Tom Herman’s track record in bowl games screams of major success. He’s captured a national championship and two wins in New Years Six bowl games, and he holds an impressive 3-0 record against SEC teams. Overall, he’s 3-0 as a head coach in the postseason.
Now, back in his previous role as a play-caller, Herman will look to add to that perfect record against a stingy Utah Utes football team.
This time of the year is unfamiliar territory for Herman and the Longhorns, however. After failing to meet regular season expectations, Texas enters this game with no momentum whatsoever. But that’s why bowl games can be so important; they present an opportunity for a fresh start and can act as a turning point heading into a much-needed offseason.
This Texas Longhorns program has checked off all the boxes in the month of December under Herman thus far. After all, Herman inherited a roster full of players that had never experienced a winning season when he initially arrived in Austin prior to the 2017 season.
Later tonight, he has a chance to send his third and final Charlie Strong era recruits – this season’s senior class – off with a well deserved victory in their final game as Longhorns.
Here are the keys to a Texas victory if that trend is going to continue tonight.
Keys to the Game
Utah is coming off their best regular season finish under head coach Kyle Whittington. They are playing for a 12-win season and are most likely feeling a bit disrespected after drawing a 7-5 opponent in Texas, rather than playing in a New Years Six bowl, which they arguably deserved. Bowl games are often won or lost based on which team comes out more motivated. There’s no question whether this team will come out hungry for a victory.
On the other hand, after enduring a major staff shakeup, there’s no telling how ready the Longhorns will be once it’s time for kickoff. But as always, Herman’s uncanny ability to get the most out of his teams in bowl games can’t be overlooked – his mojo, in other words.
Just like how bowl games are won or lost based on which team wants it more, football games are often dictated by the play in the trenches. It’s the Utes who, arguably, hold the upper-hand in that aspect of the matchup. Their defensive line unit features an all-Polynesian group, led by 335-pound defensive tackle Leki Fotu (8.5 TFL) and defensive end Bradlee Anae (12.5 sacks). Similar to the Baylor Bears’ outstanding line play, Utah’s bulky front is designed to create pressure and disrupt the quarterback by rushing four and playing man coverage across the board.
Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay vs. Utah’s man coverage
The Utes will be without their top cornerback — All-American Jaylon Johnson. Johnson led the team with 11 pass breakups this year.
With Johnson out for Utah, the status of Collin Johnson becomes even more important. While facing a defense that mostly plays man coverage across the board, Johnson is very likely chomping at the bit to get an opportunity to play against a depleted secondary in his final collegiate game.
Although they rank No. 4 in total defense, Utah’s secondary was exploited in games where they faced legitimate passing attacks. In games against the USC Trojans and the Oregon Ducks, the latter of whom dashed the Utes’ hopes for a College Football Playoff appearance, Utah’s defense struggled with the Trojans and Ducks up-tempo styles of offense and gave up several big plays downfield. The two teams handed the Utes their two losses this season.
Unlike the majority of this particular Texas team, Duvernay and Johnson are playing with an extra motive as the NFL Draft is very likely on their minds. If the Longhorns’ offensive line can hold up in pass protection and quarterback Sam Ehlinger is on point with his throws, these two could have big games under the bright lights in the Alamodome tonight.
Situational defense — the ‘little things’
Utah’s power-spread offensive attack is designed to wear teams out on the ground. They’ll be led by their bell-cow running back, senior Zack Moss, who averages over 18 carries a game. To say the least, the 225-pound punishing running back is difficult to bring down. On defense, the focus and emphasis should be on pursuing the ball and tackling well.
Mobile dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huntley isn’t much of a threat to hit 10-15 yard passes with consistency, but he’ll take what the defense gives him, and is accurate in doing so. Huntley has completed 73.7 percent of passes this season, averaging 10.7 yards per attempt.
Utah ranks No. 12 in third-down conversion rate at 47.8 percent, three spots below the Longhorns offense.
I’d expect a rather simple defensive game-plan from Texas interim defensive coordinator Craig Naivar. Utah’s primary focus on offense is to set up their play-action passing game by having success on the ground with RPOs and through designed quarterback runs. This isn’t like facing a typical Big 12 Conference offense; they’ll aim at controlling the time of possession, field position battle, and setting themselves up with manageable third-downs.
The defensive focus should be to limit gains on the ground early in downs to force Huntley to make plays against coverage. As a passer, Huntley may be efficient but isn’t much of a threat when’s he forced to make throws.
Utah 27, Texas 23