Analyzing the offense of a team that followed a 44-6 victory over UCLA with a 27-0 loss to UNLV is every bit as difficult as you'd expect. Throw the now infamous Louisville Cardinal defense into the mix and it becomes even more difficult to predict how the visiting half of the scoreboard will look inside PJCS on Friday night.
Setting aside the mass amount of indefinites for the time being, here's what we do know about a Utah offense that returned 10 starters from its Armed Forces Bowl championship team (they beat Tulsa) of a year ago.
The first thing we know is that they run mainly a spread offense, so already we've got a red flag. The second is that they have a very capable, albeit rusty, quarterback in charge of making that spread attack work.
Heading into the season, junior quarterback Brian Johnson was thought by many to be the best signal caller in the Mountain West Conference despite missing all of 2006 while recovering from knee surgery. The 2005 All-MWC performer was the victim of bad fortune again in Utah's season-opening loss to Oregon State, when he suffered a thumb injury (EDIT: he separated his right shoulder, I was thinking of Pitt's Bill Stull who hurt his thumb...my bad) that forced him to miss the Utes' next three games. He returned to action last week against Utah State and went 18-of-29 for 181 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 34-18 win.
Johnson isn't overly imposing in stature (6-1, 210-pounds), but he has a strong, accurate arm to go with some sensational athleticism. Each quality helped him finish the 2005 season ranked fourth in the country in total offense, averaging 337 yards on his own per game.
Dude scares me...so does that bizarre Crazy Fox commercial
If Johnson goes down again then the ball will go to senior Tommy Grady, who struggled with the team captain out. Grady, a 6-7 big-armed transfer from Oklahoma, completed just 50% of his passes (57-of-114) and threw four touchdowns against three interceptions in the three and-a-half games Johnson was unavailable. Three of his four TD passes naturally came in the outlier game against UCLA where he completed 17-of-30 passes for 246 yards and did not throw a pick.
Both quarterbacks have been keen on spreading the ball around this season, but if there is a go-to-guy it's former walk-on Derrek Richards. More known for his work as a return man, the senior has used his blazing 4.25 speed to catch 20 passes for a team-high 242 yards and one touchdown. A U of L secondary that has been just a tad susceptible to the big play should probably be honed in on this guy.
Utah's somewhat surprising leader in receptions is another former walk-on, junior Bradon Godfrey. Early in the season with the receiving corps plagued by drops and defenses locking in on Richards, it was Godfrey who distanced himself from the pack and has emerged as the Utes' most trusted possession receiver, catching 21 balls for 195 yards. He's not going to kill you up and down the sidelines, but he's certainly not afraid to go over the middle and then pound out some tough yards after the catch.
A big-time performer in each of his three seasons in Salt Lake, senior Brian Hernandez is the only other Utes receiver with more than ten catches, hauling in 19 passes for 187 yards. Hernandez, who has been slowed by injuries since transferring from Georgia Tech after his freshman season, was one of the many stars in the UCLA upset, making 11 catches and racking up 120 yards.
Utah likes to get the running back involved in the passing attack, as evidenced by Darrell Mack - who has only been the starting tailback for three games - ranking fourth on the team in receptions with nine and tied for first in receiving touchdowns with two. Louisville is still yet to figure out how to defend the middle of the field, especially on plays where they blitz at least one linebacker, so don't be surprised to see several screens or passing plays drawn up for Mack to slip unnoticed from the backfield into the open middle.
As far as hard stats are concerned, Utah ranks 73rd in the country in passing offense (211.6 ypg) and 104th in total offense (304 ypg), but Johnson's injury has a great deal to do with that. Grady isn't fit to run the spread, so when Johnson went down in the opener it made a great deal of the Utes' August practice time virtually useless. This is another reason this game is scary for us, because don't think for a second that OC Andy Ludwig doesn't have a bundle of plays he was planning on unveiling against UCLA that have remained hidden because of Johnson's absence. For the first time all season Utah can run the type of offense they envisioned when they started camp, and that could mean trouble for a defense that struggled about as much as you can struggle against the far inferior spread attacks of Middle Tennessee State and Syracuse.
Mack was originally set to redshirt this season, but after Matt Asiata broke his leg in the season opener, and both Ray Stowers and Darryl Poston had little to no success against Oregon State and Air Force, he was informed that he would be getting the start against UCLA. The 6-0, 219-pound junior responded by torching the Bruins for 107 yards on the ground and taking a Grady pass the distance for his first touchdown to lead the 38-point route.
He has seen similar success in the subsequent two games, rushing for 92 yards on 21 carries against UNLV, and exploding for 133 against Utah State on his way to earning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week honors. Far from a burner, Mack runs very low and is very physical, earning every yard he gains.
Is there a "Return of the Mack" joke yet to be made? Keep reading to find out.
"Darrell has certainly stepped forward the last three weeks and has done a nice job carrying the bulk of the load in the run game," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He had his best performance Saturday. If we can keep getting the production out of him that we've gotten the last three weeks, then the running game certainly is getting close to where we need it to be."
The Ute offense produced only 73 yards rushing against Air Force, and just 18 more against Oregon State, but Mack has now accounted for 353 of Utah's 462 rushing yards this season. Still, the rushing attack's early futility has hurt it in the national rankings, where Utah ranks 105th out of 119 teams in rushing offense.
While Whittingham has been pleased with Mack's emergence, he's stressed this week the need for rushing yards to come from someone other than the tailback. We already know that Johnson is going to run, but we should also expect to see some jet sweeps, as well as some misdirection out of two-back shotgun sets. Stowers reportedly put on a show at camp this summer, so he certainly has the potential to be a weapon if Whittingham or Ludwig chooses to mix things up or go double back at some point in the game.
The Utes boast a very experienced offensive line led by three-year junior starter Robert Conley. He was a preseason all-conference selection, and recorded a career-high eight knockdowns and six pancakes last week against Utah State. Sophomore Zane Beadles is a two-year starter who moved from left guard to left tackle after a season-ending injury to senior Jason Boone in camp. The man holding down the most important position on the line has played every snap in four of Utah's five games. Experienced senior center Kyle Gunther, talented freshman left guard Caleb Schlauderaff, and junior right tackle Dustin Hentsel make up the rest of the unit.
The O-line was dominated to the sound of 10 sacks in three games before buckling down to allow just one against both UNLV and Utah State. The unit's improvement has also correlated directly with the emergence of Mack at running back.
The Cards have only gotten to the quarterback eight times this season, but brought more pressure last week against NC State than they had all year. Whether or not this trend continues against a QB as dangerous as Johnson will be something to look for. Louisville has got to stop the run so it can bring pressure, and Utah has got to establish it to keep the Cardinal secondary honest, so the matchup of U of L's rearranged D-line versus UU's (I almost made it through the whole thing without doing it) veteran O-line will be huge.
Rushing Offense: 92.4 (105)
Passing Offense: 211.6 (73)
Total Offense: 304 (104)
Scoring Offense: 19.4 (T-102)
Turnover Margin: +.6 (T-36)
Passing Efficiency: 113.64 (85)
Sacks Allowed: 2.4 (T-84)