Kyle Whittingham says Utah needs more production from the run game
Kyle Whittingham knows Utah is going to need to be able to run the ball well down the stretch to reach a second straight Pac-12 title game.
The Utes are 5-2 on the season and coming off a huge 43-42 victory over USC — one that kept them in a position of strength in the race to Las Vegas. Whittingham said on Monday it doesn’t matter how you get to the Pac-12 title game, if you’re first or second, you just have to get there.
For Utah last season, that was via the run game. Utah was second only to Coastal Carolina a year ago in rushing efficiency, averaging 5.6 yards a play. They were great in short-yardage situations, backs picked up yardage when it was made available, and the offensive line opened up yardage at a top-25 clip (per Football Outsiders).
Utah’s advanced numbers look fine. Not far off. The offensive line is getting nearly identical line yards per carry (per FO again). Utah is top-30 in both short-yardage success rate and stuff rate (runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage).
But the Utes are getting about a half-yard less per rushing attempt. They’re 25th nationally in rushing efficiency, sitting at 5.0 yards per carry.
Tavion Thomas hasn’t found the same success he found a year ago. Utah found something it liked in Chris Curry and then he was lost for the season. Micah Bernard is getting the same number of touches with slightly lowered efficiency. No one has really taken over the TJ Pledger role.
There’s nothing to be alarmed about, but Utah just isn’t quite as prolific as it was a year ago.
“Just (need) more production,” Whittingham said on Monday. “We’re not as productive in the run game this year as we have been in years past. But on the other side of that, we’re throwing the ball pretty darn good.”
They are. Quarterback Cameron Rising is once again a QBR star — he ranks fourth nationally in the all-encompassing metric a year after ranking sixth. Utah is tied with UCLA for passing yards per play, and Rising ranks third in the conference in completion percentage.
Losing Brant Kuithe to a season-ending injury hasn’t been the death knell some feared it would be for the pass game. Dalton Kincaid has stepped up in a major way. The Utah receivers are growing each week.
“We seem to be at our best when we’re running the ball effectively, which opens up the play-action pass game even more so than it has been,” said Whittingham.
A quarter of Rising’s dropbacks in the pass game are play-action this season. That’s down from roughly 30% usage last season. In play-action last year, Rising completed 60% for 8.1 yards a play and eight touchdowns to no interceptions. The average target went 13 yards downfield. And he was one of the Pac-12’s highest-graded passers (per PFF) on those attempts.
Rising’s grade is lower and his average depth of target is down. He’s at 66%, though, with five scores and no interceptions.
The growth there might speak to Rising’s individual growth as a passer in his second full season at the helm of the offense. He’s been the fulcrum at times this season, keeping Utah in games on account of his individual brilliance. No doubt the Utah coaching staff is thinking about what this offense’s ceiling could be if the run game got sorted out.
“We’ve got it sorted out,” Whittingham said.
“That’ll be kept internally,” he continued. “We’re not going to tip our hand there, but we feel like we’ve got the guys for this week in the right pecking order and plugged into the game plan maximizing their strengths.”
Washington State is allowing the fewest points of any Pac-12 team this season (20) and the second-fewest yards per run (3.4). The Cougars’ 52 tackles for loss in seven games lead all Pac-12 teams and rank 16th nationally.
“Washington State’s a good football team,” said Whittingham. “They’re playing very well on D.”
Utah ran for 216 yards on 31 carries against this defense a year ago. With the Utes coming off their bye week, perhaps we’ll see some redefined roles. Maybe a re-engaged leader? Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. PT on FS1.