No doubt, most of us were probably rooting for the Utes to pull the upset but I never really expected what we saw last night. But we should have. If any of you have watched Utah over the past year or even couple of years since Urban Meyer was running the program, you have to admire the "way they play."
Yes, their is a "way to play" a game and our fellow Rocky Mountain region team showed others how to play every Saturday. The excuses could be their if you want to go that route. Alabama may have been on a SEC championship game hangover. The Tide probably lost their best player in OT Andre Smith but it is the SEC right? They are the deeper, more talented conference, right? And my favorite excuse; Utah had much more to play for than Alabama. Well, it certainly looked like the Utes wanted it more. I don't think any of the three excuses are valid. Not in today's age when you have a coach like Nick Saban and a fan base like Alabama. Every game is big to a team like 'Bama and Utah, who don't forget had to travel to SEC country, represented themselves extremely well. They punched the supposed bigger, stronger, faster team in the mouth and maintained it. It would be hard to argue that Utah wouldn't win the game again if they played today and the next next day. So how did the Utes do it and how does it apply to the way the program at CU should be molded? Five things: experience, pass rush, using the whole field, coaching and energy level.
Experience Does Matter - their is something to be said for experience. Last night, Utah lined up 18 upperclassmen of the 22 starters in the Sugar Bowl. Seven seniors on the offense including a wonderfully talented quarterback in Brian Johnson, three wide receivers, two offensive linemen and a senior running back. Add in 11 more juniors and seniors on both sides of the ball and you get an experienced team who has played for head coach Kyle Whittingham all four years. You couldn't help but admire the game plan and execution of a team that has actually played together for a while. I couldn't say enough about QB Brian Johnson and WR/My Version of a TE Freddie Brown. The scary thing for the rest of the Mountain West is Utah will return 10 of 11 starters on the defensive side of the ball, which was the real reason the Utes won the game. Next year, the Buffs will still be heavily weighted toward the underclassmen side of the spectrum. On defense, over 60% of the players will be freshman or sophomores while on the offensive side of the ball, 65% of the players will be underclassmen. But they are an "experienced" group of underclassmen, if their is such a thing, and they will need to grow up a lot this offseason to reach that 8, 9 or 10 win mark. But what you lack in youth, you should make up in coaching and last night, Utah was the better coached team.
A Pass Rush Is Important - I think I counted four times last night where I turned my head away so I didn't see the explosion that was about to happen to John Parker Wilson's back. We have seen this before. OU did it to Texas Tech. Ole Miss did it yesterday in the Cotton Bowl to Texas Tech and you could see the frustration that ensued from that. One of those terms that gets thrown around a lot is the word "multiple." In this case, the word applies as Utah brought pressure from everywhere in every spot in every position...multiple. Yes, Utah got up 21 - 0 really early and made a power running team become a passing team but even when Bama tried to run, Glen Coffee only averaged 2.8 ypc. If your a Buffs fan, you have to look at that sort of scheme and believe that next year, that is the route to go. Without a doubt, one of the strengths of the Buffs in the 2009 season will be at the cornerback position. CU returns Cha'pelle Brown, Jimmy Smith, Ben Burney, Jalil Brown and Anthony Wright in what should be one of the best corps in the Big 12. The issue will be a lack of explosiveness on the defensive line. But that can be overcome with being "multiple." I wouldn't say Utah has the biggest or fastest linemen in the world but they did things like stunting to confuse the Tide. They made the extra effort with their scheme to establish themselves. The Buffs will need to make the extra effort next year and be very sound in the coaching department, something that I have been skeptical about in the past. When the Buffs played aggressive last year, they won. When they rushed three, the Buffs got hammered. It is time to use the depth at linebacker and start confusing the opposition like Utah did last night. Its about being better in your approach and scheme.
see after the jump for the rest...
Their Is a Middle of the Field and it is Open! - How many of you last night asked, "who is this #88 guy?" I finally had to look it up. In case you don't know by now, it is Freddie Brown. And Mr. Brown played the slot last night and found himself doing to dirty work to the tune of 12 catches for 125 yards. He wasn't a game breaker, he wasn't flashy and he didn't get a ton of yards per catch but he did something the Buffs have not done well in the past under Hawkins. With the Buffs, I feel their are two very important things missing in the offense: timing and working the entire field. Brian Johnson and Kyle Whittingham knew that the powerful SEC team would eat them up if they sat in the pocket too long and if they simply tried to hand the ball off, they wouldn't stand a chance. Instead, a timing passing game was the key. Freddie Brown got matched up with safeties and linebackers out of the slot all night and, like a tight end would be in the Buffs offense, Brown ran out and slant routes over the middle of the field. The ball was delivered with timing and Utah moved the ball efficiently. They could not stop the match up of Brown in the middle of the field. Next year, the Buffs need to get a passing game with timing where whoever is playing quarterback will make a pre-snap read and within three seconds, the ball is out of the hands of the quarterback and into the hands of a playmaker like Diante Jackson or Markques Simas. Utah didn't pull a Boise State statue of liberty fake pass, they didn't throw double passes and the only trick play was a small gain on a hook-n-ladder late in the game which I thought was crazy. Utah wasn't an team who got five - 80 yard plays to pull the upset. It was a Utah team who played methodically and in a timing based offense. They removed the stress from the offensive line and quarterback while putting all the pressure on the Alabama coverage team. As you saw last night, once the ball was in the wide receivers hands, they were able to break tackles and make plays...good concept to put the ball in your playmakers hands.
Coaching - without getting into that dreaded discussion of coaching decisions by Mark Helfrich, Dan Hawkins and Ron Collins, I will just say that Utah out-coached Saban and the Tide...badly. Whether it was the defensive pressure, the special teams magic (they gave up one big punt return for a touchdown that should have been called back and a clip) with the Utah punter really being a valuable asset rather than a detriment, and the offensive timing. The Utes ran the ball 499 times this year and threw it 400 times. 44% of the time, they threw the ball before the Sugar Bowl. Last night, Utah threw 66% of the time and they did it successfully. To be that efficient when throwing the ball much more than you had all year can be attributed to unbelievable game planning and execution.
Energy Level - maybe one of my biggest pet peeves with Buffs last year was the lack of excitement on the sidelines. I am a big believer in leadership, passion and excitement being a huge part of the game. Last night and in every game I watch Utah, they are having fun, mixing it up and playing with passion. They have leaders on both sides of the ball. My biggest concern for next year is who will be the defensive leader on the field? Is their another voice on this team other than Cody Hawkins? Teams that have leaders and experience are usually very successful. That was evident last night.
Congratulations to Utah. What a game to watch for all that was good in football.