red roses in bloom
college football, Utes

Grandaddy, can the Utes play?

The Utah Utes have completed a regular season unlike any that has been seen before. Tragedy struck this football team twice, with the loss of Ty Jordan at the end of the 2020 season and then again at the start of the 2021 season with the loss of Aaron Lowe; the Utah faithful was hoping just to see the players complete the season. Less importantly, the Utes stood at 1-2 in their first three game. The offense hadn’t found its identity, but there were no expectations after what transpired off the field. However, that wasn’t the football team’s expectations, they wanted more in honor of their fallen brothers and it showed on the field.

The Utes roared to a first ever Pac-12 championship, players attaining Pac-12 honors, and now are waiting to play in the Rose bowl vs the Ohio State Buckeyes. This season has the makings of a feel good movie. But Utah’s final opponent is unlike anything they have seen this season. The defense will face a serious test in trying to slow down one of the best passing offenses in the country of the Buckeyes. Let’s look at this matchup with mingling facts and speculation.

The Buckeyes

  • Fact: The passing game will be a massive challenge for the Utes
    • CJ Stroud is the best QB the Utes will face this year. Stroud is a Heisman finalist, top 10 in the nation in passing yards (over 3,800 yards), finished 38 TDs to 5 INTs, is no. 2 in the nation in passing efficiency, and has completed an ungodly ~71% of his passes. He is the real deal…
    • The passing offense for Ohio State is a three headed monster. Jaxon Smith-Njibda (1,259 yrds / 6 TDs), Garrett Wilson (1,058 yrds / 12 TDs), and Chris Olave (936 yrds/ 13 TDs)
  • Speculation: Two of Stroud’s favorite targets, Olave and Wilson, are projected to be first round picks in the upcoming NFL draft and they may sit in preparation. This is not an uncommon practice nowadays. And Wilson may strongly consider this route as he is projected to be the first WR taken in per CBS Sports. Consider some recent examples of high profile players being hurt in bowl games prior to the draft. Fans may not like it, but we must appreciate the reasoning. Especially since NFL scouts do not care. Sitting doesn’t materially affect their draft stock, while an injury will. What is the real upside?
  • Fact: This team can score the ball as they lead the nation in scoring offense with 45.5 PTs/game.
    • The Buckeyes crush teams… in their wins they are averaging almost 50 PTs/game and win by a margin of almost 32 PTs
    • That being said, the have only beaten four teams with a record above .500 (Minnesota .667; Penn State .583; Purdue .667; Michigan State .833)
    • And in their losses they have only put up 27.5 PTs and faced opponents with a .846 winning percentage
    • Final point, they went 1-2 vs ranked opponents
  • Speculation: After missing out on the college playoffs, will this team be motivated to play a lesser prestigious university in the Rose Bowl? Look, I love my Utes, but them winning the Pac-12 barely made a blip on the national scene, if at all. A fair equivalent of the Utes in the Big Ten would be Iowa. Seasoned and respected head coach, rabid fans, underdogs who always put up a fight, gritty defense and running game, but they aren’t the favorites of the conference, they are not the blue bloods. Now Iowa fans may clap back at that and point to their conference titles and Rose Bowl appearances, but out west, no one cares about Iowa. Just like back east no one cares about Utah. As much as it may pain me to say this, Ohio St. cannot be that excited to play Utah.

The Utes

  • Fact: Utah keys to success is rushing and defense
    • Tavion Thomas leads the backfield with over 1K yards and 20 TDs. He has emerged as the RB1 for the Utes and has a nose for the end zone. If anything was learned from the Michigan game it is that you can run the ball on Ohio St.
    • Devin Lloyd is the best defensive player to ever come out of Utah. The Pac-12 defensive player of the year, an All-American, and is on the watchlist for the Butkus and Lott awards. His stat line is ridiculous 107 total tackles, 8 sacks, 22 TFL, 4 INTs, and 2 TDs. He has all the makings of a be a first round pick.
    • Applying pressure on Stroud will be a key strategy for the Utes and to help in that effort with be Mika Tafua who is no. 25 in the nation with 9.5 sacks.
  • Speculation: The Utes secondary is young, banged up, and may not be able to meet the challenge. In the USC game, Drake London was able to get anything and everything. This was likely an expected outcome and potentially part of the defensive game plan, but if all three Ohio St. WR suit up it will be a tall task for a young secondary.
  • Fact: In the Utah’s losses they have been outscored 35 pts in the 3rd quarter. Alternatively, almost 40% of the total PTs scored for Ohio St. in their wins comes in the 2nd quarter.
    • If Utah can weather the early storm that Ohio St. is likely to put on, they have a good chance of winning this game, but much show up after halftime.
Ohio State – QuartersPct of Total PTs in Wins
Fig 1. Ohio State drowned their opponents early in wins
  • Speculation: If the Utes cannot generate enough pressure on Stroud he will tear them apart. Ohio St. WRs find the holes in the zone coverages and Stroud can hit them in man coverage as well. But Utah should be up to the challenge. In terms of yards allowed, Utah will be the 3rd best overall defense in both departments that Ohio St. will have faced.
  • Fact: Utah’s special teams will need to be better. They cannot afford bad punts or giving up kick returns if they are going to win this game they have to keep it close.

Game Plan

  • In order for Utah to win they will have to force Stroud into bad situations and he is really impressive. He takes care of the ball with only 5 INTs on 395 attempts.
    • Stroud is going to pass for a bunch of yards. Excluding the Tulsa game, Stroud averaged 367 yards per game (see Fig 2)….Stroud gets rid of the ball quickly. In his successful passes in the Oregon game, he got rid of the ball within a three second timeframe. Utah will have to disguise its looks so it isn’t easy for him to make one read and get rid of the ball. Expect Lloyd to show off his passing instincts and Tafua to be applying pressure
    • But do not forget that the Buckeyes are effective at bating the defense on play action on the RPO because their freshman running back is a stud too!
  • Run the damn ball
    • Michigan had success moving the ball and got to the second level – but this also set up key trick plays and misdirection to keep Ohio St. honest. Oregon no-showed in the Pac-12 championship, I expect Ohio St. to crowd the box and make a better effort.
    • Cam Rising will have his moments to scramble and make plays with his legs, but he needs to take care of the ball when he does pass
    • Running the ball effectively will frustrate the Buckeyes, who had 10 penalties against Michigan in their final season defeat
Fig 2. moderate positive correlation of .45 – i.e. the more yards you give he takes


I will never bet against my Utes! The line opened up with Ohio St. at -7.5, but Draftkings and others have it now at -6.5. Neither team has been good against the spread this year. While the totals have gone over in 4/5 for Utah and 3/5 for Ohio St.

Until we know what is happening with the WRs of Ohio St. I am going to hold onto my money.

With Ohio St. WRs –> Take the under; 35-28, Utes

Without WRs –> Take the under; 35-24; Utes

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