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What needs to happen for Utah’s offensive line to get back on track?

Utah’s line will have its work cut out for it when it faces stingy ASU defense Saturday

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Oregon defensive back Khyree Jackson sacks Utah QB Bryson Barnes during a game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, in Salt Lake City.

Oregon defensive back Khyree Jackson sacks Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes during a game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, in Salt Lake City. The Utes’ line got beat on both sides of the ball vs. the Ducks, something that will have to improve if Utah is to defeat Arizona State on Saturday.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Oregon went into Rice-Eccles Stadium and did something most teams don’t do against Utah.

The Ducks dominated both lines of scrimmage, and it wasn’t particularly close.

“That was one of our many shortcomings in the game was not being able to establish a good run game, and Oregon did a nice job in the line of scrimmage on both sides.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

Utah failed to sack Oregon quarterback Bo Nix, just the second time this season that the Utes didn’t register a sack (the other was the second game of the season at Baylor), and aside from a forced Junior Tafuna fumble, the Ducks protected Nix well and ran the ball well.

On offense, Utah didn’t score a touchdown for the first time since the 2018 Pac-12 championship game against Washington, and a big part of the offensive failures were intertwined — the absence of good offensive line play and the lack of a run game.

Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes, who didn’t have a great game himself, was pressured on 19 of 35 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus data, leading to two sacks. Barnes also threw two interceptions — the first looked like miscommunication between Barnes and Sione Vaki and wasn’t affected by pressure, but the second pick was.

Just as important, the offensive line failed to get much push in the run game, which is crucial for Utah to open up the pass game.

“That was one of our many shortcomings in the game was not being able to establish a good run game and Oregon did a nice job in the line of scrimmage on both sides,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I had said that the two real keys to the game were to win the line of scrimmage and win the turnover margin, and we weren’t able to accomplish that.”

Vaki wasn’t “feeling up to par,” Whittingham said Monday after the Oregon game, and Ja’Quinden Jackson’s ankle injury flared up again. Already thin at running back, Utah couldn’t get full performances from its backfield.

Then what’s happened to Utah many times before this season happened again — Oregon sold out against the run.

“You just got to be Superman. You got to carry five, six or seven of them. That’s how you do it. I mean we can’t cry about that. Do your job right. I don’t care if they put 20 in a box, figure it out,” running backs coach Quinton Ganther said.

The Utes ended up with 99 rushing yards, but that number is deceiving. Of Utah’s 99 yards on the ground, 71 came in the fourth quarter with the game all but decided, meaning the Utes had just 28 yards rushing through three quarters.

That’s not going to get it done.

“We’re at our best when we’re running the football efficiently. That sets up the play-action game and everything else and so we’ve got to find a way to get back on track with that and it’s not panic time. It was one game and we feel like we’ve got a really good o-line, good backs and so we’ll make an effort to get that back on track,” Whittingham said. “Typically, as the run game goes, so goes the offense, so that’s going to be an important part of responding this week.”

So what went wrong for the Utes o-block against Oregon?

“A lot of mental, a lot of technical things that we did at practice that didn’t show up on game day. Just looking forward for this next week, just locking in on practice and hopefully we have the outcome we want this upcoming game,” right tackle Sataoa Laumea said.

Give a lot of credit to Oregon — the Ducks’ defensive line is the real deal. Oregon is No. 10 in the nation in sacks (27) and No. 16 in the country in total defense (303.6 yards allowed per game.

“Oregon, they have a very good front seven. ... If you say the biggest thing they brought, I think they probably outphysicaled us this game too, so probably physicality,” Laumea said.

How can Utah’s offensive line be more physical against Arizona State?

“Just coming off the ball with that lower pad level and just tenacious effort playing through the whistle,” left guard Keaton Bills said.

Pro Football Focus grades each offensive lineman on run and pass blocking for each game. A team of analysts watches each game and assigns a grade to each player each play, totaling an overall grade from 0-100 for the game. This is just one service’s opinion, so take it with a grain of salt, but it can help quantify offensive line play.

Here’s how PFF graded out Utah’s offensive linemen on Saturday.

  • Sataoa Laumea (RT, 68 snaps): 55.2 run block, 50 pass block.
  • Michael Mokofisi (RG, 68 snaps): 58.4 run block, 78.3 pass block.
  • Kolinu’u Faaiu (C, 68 snaps): 79.4 run block, 60.6 pass block.
  • Keaton Bills (LG, 68 snaps): 54.1 run block, 61.3 pass block.
  • Spencer Fano (LT, 39 snaps): 57.9 run block, 54.8 pass block.
  • Tanoa Togiai (LT, 29 snaps): 69. 1 run block, 87.0 pass block.

Utah’s offensive line had two good performances in wins against Cal and USC, coinciding with putting Faaiu at center, in which the Utes put up season highs in offensive yards.

“I think just what works for us always is just communication and physicality. So just kind of our calling card and just kind of make sure we’re always capitalizing on those two things,” Bills said.

However, both the Bears and Trojans rank in the bottom third of total defense. Before Oregon, the last time Utah’s line couldn’t get much push was back in September against Oregon State, which ranks No. 46 in total defense.


Utes on the air

No. 18 Utah (6-2, 3-2 Pac-12)
vs. Arizona State (2-6, 1-4 Pac-12)
Saturday, 12 p.m. MDT
Rice-Eccles Stadium
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM

Did the offensive line figure something out in those two prior games, or were the Utes just taking advantage of poor defenses? We’ll find out more concretely against against Arizona State, which is ranked No. 39 in total defense (340.9 yards per game) and has totaled 21 sacks this season (No. 31 in the nation).

Aside from offensive line improvement, the run game has to be more explosive and creative and the pass game has to provide at least a threat of a downfield shot to prevent teams from loading the box.

“Stuff we got to do better. Obviously it’s a new week this week, so we’re just going to keep moving forward this week. And then capitalizing on those two things, communication, physicality, and working on getting better this week,” Bills said.


Utah offensive lineman Keaton Bills (51) prepares to block during a game against Washington State, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, in Pullman, Wash. Bills says the Utes’ offensive line must do a better job of communicating and being more physical when it plays ASU Saturday.

Young Kwak, Associated Press