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Notre Dame vs. Utah: Keys to an Irish Win

By · November 11th, 2010 · 2 Comments
Notre Dame vs. Utah: Keys to an Irish Win

The Irish host 15th ranked Utah Saturday in the first ever meeting between the two schools.

Notre Dame limps into the contest off a bye week at 4-5, and with a rash of injuries to key personnel including quarterback Dayne Crist and several of his primary targets.

The last two outings—a decisive loss to Navy and a home loss to Tulsa that featured a questionable coaching decision down the stretch—haven’t been pretty for head coach Brian Kelly. With three games left and needing two wins to become bowl eligible, it’s now or never for the Irish.

The Utes come to South Bend with a 8-1 record but off the heels of a 40-point defeat by TCU, Utah’s most lopsided loss since a 36-3 route by Boise State in 2006. Utah owns wins over Pittsburgh, UNLV, New Mexico, San Jose State, Iowa State, Wyoming, Colorado State, and Air Force, and have faced the 104th most difficult AVR strength of schedule.

Utah, Version 2010

Kyle Wittingham has spent 16 years coaching in Salt Lake City, the last six at the helm of the program. As a head coach, Wittingham has compiled as impressive a resume as you’ll find among the college football coaching ranks.

He is 56-18 (0.757) overall including an undefeated season (13-0) in 2008 and a 6-0 record in bowl games. But, perhaps most impressive, Wittingham is 12-4 (0.750) against BCS conference competition and the Utes are 8-3 in November road contests over the past seven years.

Like Wittingham’s previous squads, the 2010 Utes field a stout defense and strong offense. Additionally, Utah is a disciplined unit that ranks 15th in penalties per game (4.9) and 30th in penalty yards per game (44.1).

Unlike previous teams, however, this year’s squad has struggled in the turnover department. Utah has traditionally been very good in turnover margin, averaging a ranking of 21.7 from 2003 to 2009. But this year the Utes are -4 in this critical metric, coughing up two turnovers per game (ranked 84th) while generating 1.6 takeaways per outing (76).


Last season Dave Schramm served as the offensive coordinator but this year he is joined by Aaron Roderick as the two share the coordinating duties. Schramm doubles as the tight ends coach while Roderick has a tremendous track record as a wide receiver coach—over the past five years he has never had his leading pass catcher return but has managed to generate at least two receivers with 50-plus receptions four times.

While the coordinating duties have changed, the generic makeup of the offense and the associated production has not. The Utes remain an innovative offensive team and employ a wide-open spread scheme that has produced at a high level this season.

Utah ranks in the top 15 in all four efficiency categories (third down, fourth down, red zone, and red zone touchdown), average 41 points per game (9th ranked), and gain 6.7 yards per play (13). The first-strike weapon is the ground attack where Utah averages 5.2 yards per carry (22) and 2.6 rushing touchdowns per game (16). The natural byproduct of this potent ground game is a very efficient passing offense. The Utes rank 25th in yards per attempt, 8th in completion percentage, and 25th in pass efficiency.

Much of the offensive success is owed to a veteran and experienced front five. Caleb Schlauderaff (four-year starter), Zane Taylor (three-year starter), Tevita Stevens (two-year starter), and Tony Bergstrom (two-year starter) all started at least 11 games in 2009 and have allowed only 2.7 tackles for a loss per game (1) and one sack every 65.8 pass attempts (4). These four have combined for 125 career starts and form the second most experienced offensive line the Irish will face all year.

The primary beneficiary of Utah’s skilled offensive line is quarterback Jordan Wynn. The true sophomore signal caller led the Utes in a come-from-behind win against Wyoming last year and started the final five games during which the Utes increased their scoring average by nearly a touchdown per game.

Wynn picked up this year right where he left off in 2009. He is the 27th most efficient passer in the country and has completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,579 yards and 14 touchdowns despite missing games against UNLV and New Mexico with an injury. Behind Wynn is senior Terrance Cain who is a more than capable option should he be needed.

Wynn is joined in the backfield by two productive senior running backs with very different skill sets. At 5′-10″ and 195 pounds, Eddie Wide is the seemingly more natural fit for a spread offense, but Matt Asiata (5′-11″, 220 pounds) has also contributed extensively to the ground production. Asiata has battled multiple injuries in the past, but has remained healthy this season as the two backs have split the bulk of the carries and combined for 1,059 yards and 15 touchdowns at 4.9 yards per attempt.

Wynn’s primary targets are wide receivers Jerome Brooks and DeVonte Christopher. Brooks was the second leading receiver last year and has caught 40 balls for 460 yards (11.5 yards per reception) and four touchdowns this season while Christopher has 32 receptions for 572 yards (17.9 yards per reception) and five touchdowns in his first year of extended playing time.

Along with Christopher, wide receivers Shaky Smithson and Luke Matthews are the deep threats in the passing game (16.7 yards per reception) while Asiata and Wide are the teams third and fourth leading receivers combining for 45 receptions, 323 yards (7.2 yards per reception), and three touchdowns.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Utes offense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Utah’s 2010 opponents).

2010 Utah Offensive Efficiency

[table id=470 /]

2010 Utah Total Offense

[table id=471 /]

2010 Utah Rushing Offense

[table id=472 /]

2010 Utah Passing Offense

[table id=473 /]


Wittingham’s background is on the defensive side of the ball and Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake’s scheme reflects the style of his head coach. Sitake uses the 4-3 as his base personnel grouping and emphasizes gap control, tight coverage on the outside with help over the top, and pressure from the defensive front. The Utes need strong play from their front seven for the scheme to work, and feature an active linebacker corps and veteran and experienced front four.

The defensive line is led by senior end Christian Cox who was first on the team in sacks last year and leads defensive linemen in tackles and tackles for a loss this season. The primary contributors alongside Cox are Sealver Siliga, Derrick Shelby, Dave Kruger, and Junior Tui’one. Each has started at least three games this season as the four have combined for 82 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, and four sacks. The Utes also feature strong depth along the defensive front as 11 players have played in at least seven games, registered a tackle for a loss, and recorded a sack.

The top two tacklers on the squad are junior linebackers Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez who have combined for 132 stops. Both are very active players and are joined by Chad Manis as the primary contributors at the position.

Corners Brandon Burton and Lamar Chapman are the leaders in the secondary. Both have very good coverage ability and are solid tacklers. Chapman is also frequently used in Sitake’s blitz packages—the senior defensive back leads the team in tackles for a loss and sacks. Burton and Chapman are joined in the defensive backfield by safeties Brian Blechen and Justin Taplin-Ross.

Utah’s defensive personnel—a deep defensive line, active linebackers, and strong cover corners—allow Sitake to operate within his preferred scheme and the results have been positive. The 2010 Utes defense ranks 15th or better in three of four efficiency categories and ranks in the top 15 in every total defensive category except yards per play (but 4.9 yards per snap is hardly a performance to balk at).

The unit is particularly strong against the run. The Utes have allowed only 3.1 yards per rush attempt (11th ranked), 111 yards per game on the ground (16), and only seven rushing touchdowns (10). Against the pass, however, the numbers aren’t as solid. The defense ranks in the bottom half of the country in yards per attempt, yards per completion, interceptions, and pass efficiency.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Utes defense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Utah’s 2010 opponents).

2010 Utah Defensive Efficiency

[table id=474 /]

2010 Utah Total Defense

[table id=475 /]

2010 Utah Rushing Defense

[table id=476 /]

2010 Utah Passing Defense

[table id=477 /]

Adding It All Up

Offensively, Schramm and Roderick’s formula is simple:  run the ball well and throw it off running looks for big gains. The play-calling keeps opposing defenses off-balance and Utah’s offense ahead of the chains. For the most part, the Utes have the pieces to accomplish these goals. Wynn is adept at distributing the ball, there are plenty of deep threats in the receiving corps, Wide and Asiata are capable runners, and the offensive line is the strength of the unit.

Defensively, Utah fields a top 15 unit with a deep front four, active and athletic linebackers, and solid outside coverage. Sitake’s unit is very good against the run and also excels applying pressure against opposing quarterbacks. The scheme isn’t a Tenuta-like pressure package, but there are certainly elements of exotic blitzes, particularly on obvious passing downs.

Keys to Winning


  1. Pass early, often and downfield. Utah allows only 3.1 yards per rush attempt (11th ranked) and the Irish offense averages only 3.8 yards per carry (82). Additionally, Utah has only allowed 30 rushing gains of 10-plus yards (12) while the Irish have only generated 36 (88). Moreover, the Utes are susceptible to big plays in the passing game. Utah has allowed 67 completions go for 10-plus yards (31) while the Irish have generated 109 (11). Even with a freshman quarterback, the best way to attack the Utes defense is through the air.
  2. Protect the ball, particularly if your name is Tommy Rees. Utah has only generated 14 turnovers, but the Utes take advantage of their opportunities by averaging nearly a touchdown per game off takeaways. This has been a huge problem for Notre Dame and they can’t afford to gift wrap points against a top 15 team. Quarterback Tommy Rees has shown a penchant for throwing picks, Utah can mix up coverages and pressure the passer, and the Irish don’t have a competent running game to lean on. It is imperative for Kelly to manage the game and for Rees to not force passes.
  3. First and open down execution is essential. The games where Utah’s defense gave up the most points—Pittsburgh, Iowa State, Air Force, and TCU—were the games where they struggled on first down, particularly through the air. The Utes allowed 6.9 yards per first down play and 11.9 yards per first down pass in these situations compared to season averages of 5.4 and 8.6 respectively. Over 50 percent of the yards came off big plays (compared to the season average of 40.3 percent), but excluding big plays Utah still allowed 7.9 yards per first down pass. Additionally, Utah’s opponents have averaged better than 12 yards per first down play on scoring drives but only 4.3 yards per first down snap on non-scoring possessions. Sitake’s defense thrives in obvious passing situations and the Irish must avoid playing from behind the chains.


  1. Don’t give up the big play. The Utes don’t take long to score, mostly because they usually do so off of big plays. Almost a third of Utah’s touchdowns have come off big plays—including 12 passing touchdowns of 20-plus yards—and the scoring and non-scoring drives are basically a feast or famine of explosive gains. Including only meaningful possessions, the Utes have generated 45 scoring (touchdown or field goal) drives and an identical number of non-scoring possessions. The offense has produced 36 big plays for 1,247 yards on the scoring drives but only three big plays for 77 yards on the non-scoring possessions. Stop explosive gains and you stop the Utes from scoring.
  2. First down is the key. TCU gave Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco the blueprint for beating the Utes: play well on first down and force obvious passing situations. Utah posted a season-low 4.8 yards per first down snap against the Horned Frogs as the offense averaged only 3.2 yards per rush and Wynn completed only 42.9 percent of his passes. The result was unfavorable down and distances. The Utes spent a season-high 46.2 percent of their snaps in closed down situations where Wynn’s passer efficiency was only 66.9. Additionally, over 69 percent of Utah’s third downs were long distance situations, a much higher rate than their season average of 42 percent. The result was a season-worst 23.1 percent third down conversion rate, well below their season average of 50.8 percent. Force minimal gains on first down, create obvious third down passing situations, and frustrate a Utah offense predicated on balance.
  3. Defend the run first, but watch for throws downfield. Like Tulsa, the Utes are a run-first team. Utah’s run/pass split on open downs is 62.1/37.9 and they average five yards per rush attempt in these situations. Additionally, the Utes average 8.9 yards per rush attempt on scoring drives but only 3.8 yards per carry on non-scoring possessions. But because of this ability to run the ball, Utah has been extremely dangerous going downfield. The Utes rank 7th in 30-plus yard passes and have generated 19 (of their 30 total) pass plays of 20-plus yards on open downs when opposing defenses focus on stopping the run.


On paper, Utah appears to be a formidable opponent. But the Utes have certainly benefited from weak competition. Utah’s opponent AVR ranks (with team record in parentheses): Pittsburgh (5-3)—50, UNLV (1-8)—114, New Mexico (1-8)—119, San Jose State (1-8)—113, Iowa State (5-5)—56, Wyoming (2-8)—106, Colorado State (3-7)—98, Air Force (6-4)—40, TCU (10-0)—3. Only TCU is an above average opponent and the Horned Frogs beat Utah in decisive fashion on their home turf last Saturday. The trend(s) also continue on both sides of the ball.

Excluding Pittsburgh and TCU, Utah has faced defenses that surrender 6.1 yards per play and allow an average of 425.4 yards and 33.1 points per game. These opponents average rankings are 97, 97 and 95 for these three metrics, and no team ranked better than 49 in any of the three categories.

The story for the Utes defense is similar. Excluding Air Force and TCU, Utah has faced offensive teams that gain 4.8 yards per play and average 303.8 yards and 19 points per game. These teams comprise ranking averages of 94, 101 and 100 in these three categories, with only Pittsburgh ranking above 69 in any of the three metrics.

To say that Utah has been largely untested would be an understatement. The Utes struggled against two semi-quality opponents (Pittsburgh and Air Force) and lost in dramatic fashion to the only strong team (TCU) they have faced.

From a style standpoint, Utah’s strength is their situational play. The offense seeks to mix the run and pass to keep opponents off-balance and generate big gains through the air. Their defensive game plan is similar—stop the run on early downs, force obvious passing situations, and apply pressure.

Offensively, it goes without saying that the Irish front five must protect their freshman signal caller, but Kelly must also manage the game. There are plays to be made downfield through the air but ball protection and execution on early downs is critical. For the Irish defense, the game plan looks eerily similar to that of Tulsa: stop the run and limit big plays.

Injuries to critical personnel and a true freshman quarterback don’t bode well for an Irish offense that needs improved consistency in their execution and faces a defense built to pressure the passer. Notre Dame’s defense will keep them in the game, but Utah has more depth and executes at a higher level.

Notre Dame 17, Utah 27



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