If you know any detail about Utah’s 2021 season, it’s probably this: a quarterback change made all the difference. If you’re not familiar, here’s the gist.
The Utes have been leaning on QB transfers of late. In 2020, they went with former South Carolina Gamecock Jake Bentley. When that experiment didn’t work out, they turned to former Baylor Bear Charlie Brewer in 2021. Brewer delivered a season-opening win over FCS Weber State, but he struggled in a Week 2 loss to rival BYU.
The struggles only got worse in Week 3 against San Diego State. Down 24-10 late in the 3rd quarter, Kyle Whittingham put in Texas transfer Cam Rising.
Though the Utes dropped that game in triple overtime, Rising was the answer they needed behind center. Utah won eight of their remaining nine games and blew out Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Utes ran up a two-score halftime lead in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State, but they couldn’t hold the lead and lost the game in overtime.
Hearing that story, you may think that the passing game was the difference. And sure enough, it was the difference between losing to BYU and San Diego State versus handling most of the Pac-12 without issue.
But make no mistake, this was still a Kyle Whittingham Utah team. If you count sacks as pass plays, Utah ran the ball 56.2% of the time. Some of those runs were scrambles by Rising, who is mobile and elusive. However, Utah was still comfortably a run-first team.
Rising himself had some stats that would remind you of 2021 Emory Jones, who wasn’t exactly a wizard through the air. Jones’s completion rate was about a percentage point higher, and their yards per attempt were 0.1 off from each other. Rising’s passing efficiency was about five points higher. However, both were in the 140s, a range where average passers end up.
The two biggest differences were that Rising’s yards per carry rate was more than a yard higher on half as many carries, and he threw only five picks compared to Jones’s 13 on a similar number of attempts. Rising does have a higher ceiling given that he is a bit stronger of a runner, has far better pocket awareness, and has better touch on his passes, but both players were 2018 recruits. He can play better than he did last year, but he’s just about a finished product by now.
But again, he doesn’t have to be Kyle Trask in their offense. Utah has an 1,100 yard rusher in Tavion Thomas coming back with him. They want to mash opponents and largely do. That allows Rising to feast on play action and rollouts. He is very good at those.
Whittingham has had the Utes doing this sort of thing for 17 years now. It is their identity. It’s what they do. I expect the Gators will be trying to do much the same thing, but they have less practice at it.
Florida has not been a truly run-heavy team since 2018, when they had a sack-adjusted 57.1% rush rate. Nearly everyone who was around for that season is gone. The run rate in 2019 fell to 42.7%, and it went even lower to 41.3% in 2020.
It went back above 50% last year as you would guess with Jones running the show, but it was only up to 52.3%. A lot of that had to do with the Gators not performing well and playing from behind more often than expected though, as teams always pass more when they’re down.
In any event, the spread option is gone and replaced by a scheme with a lot of two tight end sets. Billy Napier liked to run the ball a lot at Louisiana, which was appropriate since he had a mobile quarterback who was a limited passer for most of the time.
Last year, the Ragin’ Cajuns ran the ball a sack-adjusted 55.6% of the time. That is closer to Utah’s rate than Florida’s, but again, game state plays into it. UL went 13-1 and so ran a lot to close out wins just like the Utes did.
Anthony Richardson is too good a runner to leave him in the pocket all of the time, but he will run less than Jones did. The new offense just isn’t built to have the quarterback carry the ball that much. Furthermore, Jack Miller and Jalen Kitna have been dealing with injuries in fall camp, which robs them of reps even if they are ready to go for the opener.
In other words, UF will probably employ Richardson much the same way Utah does Rising. Both teams will also try to win with their strong defenses.
Can this end well for Florida? Utah is a good team that’s been doing this sort of thing forever. UF will be in its first game in new systems. That usually doesn’t bode well for the team that lacks continuity.
There are two potential mitigating factors.
First, Florida will have more talent and athleticism. That does not clinch anything, to be sure. Utah’s rank last year in the Team Talent Composite was about the same as that of Kentucky, which beat Florida in 2021. Plus, Utah nearly beat Ohio State. The Buckeyes have more talent than Florida does.
The reason I still count it here is that athleticism can erase mistakes. Maybe a play breaks down on offense, but Richardson uses his enormous gifts to pick up a first down despite the chaos. Maybe someone misses an assignment on defense, but they can use their speed to make a play anyway. Or Gervon Dexter and Brenton Cox meet up and sack Rising to make the missed assignment moot.
The other factor is, of course, the weather. There was a report last week that Utah was trying to use noise, heat, and humidity in their practice facility to simulate the Swamp.
Utah has been practicing in the indoor facility lately with the heat way up, the noise way up and different things to make it as humid as possible to somewhat acclimate to The Swamp.
— Josh Furlong (@JFurKSL) August 15, 2022
They can try that all they want, but nothing will match the actual conditions. There really isn’t anywhere that Utah has played recently that will be like Gainesville in September. Four straight quarters of 85% humidity or more, even after dark for a night game, can be just demoralizing.
Napier has reportedly emphasized the conditioning side of the strength and conditioning program more than several of the most recent Florida head coaches. It’s standard practice for new coaching regimes to generate reports of better S&C results during the first offseason, but the specificity I’ve seen leads me to believe that there is real truth to it. One of Florida’s best chances in this game is to pull away late because they are still going strong while Utah wilts.
The opener is going to be one of those hard-hitting games where you can hear the pads popping from Micanopy. Both teams will try to do approximately the same thing, winning with the ground game and defense. Florida needs to use its athleticism and conditioning to its advantage, or else Utah will win another game the same way always does through its experience at playing that kind of game.