Monson: Time for Air Whitt offense at Utah? In Pac-12, there’s no need for it

Much has been written and said about Utah’s attack under new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor — what it should be, what it shouldn’t be, what it needs to be, what it doesn’t need to be, what it can be, what it can’t be, what it will be and what it won’t be.

All of that coming inside the challenge of playing in the Pac-12, a supposedly enlightened conference where enlightened football is played, where enlightened football is required to be played in order to become a league champion.

What the Utes have offered in the past, to pair up with their impressive defense, has not been progressive, it’s been tied more to Big Ten football from the 1970s — three yards and a cloud of just missing out. Utah has finished near the bottom of Pac-12 passing rankings every year it’s been in the conference, and that’s hardly a way to conquer it, right?

The Pac-12 is where quarterbacks thrive, where the ball spirals through the air straight to Pasadena, where innovation in the passing game — and heavy reliance on it — is a hallmark.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune
New offensive coordinator Troy Taylor poses for a portrait after Utah football practice, Thursday, March 9, 2017.

No. No it is not. At least not in numbers of attempts.

The whole pass-happy perception in the Pac-12, at the top of it, is a myth. It’s simply not true, according to research done by Austin Horton, a producer at radio station 1280 The Zone via the website.

Here are the pass-run percentages of league champions since Utah entered the Pac-12 before the 2011 season:

• 2016: Washington — 45 percent pass, 55 percent run.

• 2015: Stanford — 36 percent pass, 64 percent run.

• 2014: Oregon — 43 percent pass, 57 percent run.

• 2013: Arizona State — 47 percent pass, 53 percent run.

• 2012: Stanford — 43 percent pass, 57 percent run.

• 2011: Oregon — 39 percent pass, 61 percent run.

Only twice over that span have teams that passed more than they ran finished among the league’s top three — Arizona in 2014 (second) and USC in 2011 (third).

Utah’s percentage splits have gone like this: 42-58 in 2016, when it finished 5-4; 40-60 in 2015, finishing 6-3; 45-55 in 2014, going 5-4; 47-53 in 2013 and 2012, finishing 5-7 each year; and 44-56 in 2011, winding up 4-5.

When Kyle Whittingham was asked before last season if he was anti-passing, he answered cleverly, saying, “No, I’m anti-losing.”

It’s plain for anyone with a brain to know that being able to run and pass effectively helps an offense keep defenses off-balance, helps a team win games and win league titles. But the notion that most of us have believed and pushed, at least some of the time, that a Pac-12 offense is best served to be prolific in the passing game is straight vapor.

Utah quarterback Troy Williams looks to throw against California during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

It is better served to be efficient in the passing game, so that aspect can be relied upon when necessary, when defenses load up against the run, a defensive strategy that has worked so well for Whittingham’s defenses through the years.

Just because an offense can burn the defense in every quadrant of the field via the pass doesn’t mean it always will or that it always has to. The threat of having that capability often is good enough. And actually going ahead and putting it up, mixed nicely — not mostly — with the ground game preserves drives and wins games.

On both counts, the Utes must improve.

But don’t expect Troy Williams or Tyler Huntley or Cooper Bateman to be transformed into or utilized like John Elway under Taylor. Because not even Elway was what you might think Elway was when he was at Stanford. In each of his years there, particularly after his freshman season, when he was a part-time quarterback, he passed a lot, but the Cardinal always ran more than they threw.

So it will certainly be with Taylor’s offense at Utah.

Last season at Eastern Washington, where Taylor was co-offensive coordinator, the Eagles ran the ball 442 times and passed it 620. But Eastern does not play in the Pac-12, where that kind of ratio, regardless of what Mike Leach does at Washington State, would be an admission of guilt — and of desperation.

Whittingham, the Ute overlord, would never allow it.

Upon his hiring at Utah, Taylor said a top priority would be “creating success for the quarterback.”

That success will not and should not come in a lopsided number of passing attempts. It will come, if it does at all, in sustained drives and opponents being made fully aware that the Ute offense can run the ball and wing it, too — horizontally, vertically, efficiently, occasionally, naturally, comfortably — when it chooses to do so.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

from The Salt Lake Tribune


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