Gadget magic

By By Tony Pizza

By Tony Pizza

The head coaches of UNLV and Utah are two of just a handful of guys with intimate knowledge of the spread offense. After all, Mike Sanford still utilizes the offense he helped make famous at Utah between 2003 and 2004. On that same token, head coach Kyle Whittingam saw it at every practice as the Ute defensive coordinator, and his team still utilizes a large portion of the offense today.

Though the Utes don’t exactly roll out the full buffet that the spread offense offers, they did unleash a few surprising gadget plays out of the spread offense against the Rebels. The most surprising thing is that these plays worked so well against a team and a coach who are all too familiar with how the spread schemes work.

The first time Utah pulled a fast one on UNLV was in the opening quarter, with Utah on the UNLV 34.

Utah ran a double reverse, which left Fano Tagovailoa with about 20 yards of daylight in front of him. Instead of running the ball, Tagovailoa let loose a 22-yard pass for quarterback Brett Ratliff, who was streaking down the far sideline to get the Utes down to the UNLV seven.

There was an awkward murmur in the stands as people quickly looked toward the Ute sideline to see if Urban Meyer was making a cameo appearance on the sideline. A second later, the sparser-than-normal crowd erupted into a dual-purposed cheer, with half the screams aimed toward the success of the play and the other half for the coaches actually calling the play.

Gimmick plays are designed to catch teams off guard, but with UNLV’s defense having first-hand knowledge of what a spread offense looks like, it is also surprising the UNLV defense continued to line up in one-on-one man coverage, only to get repeatedly torched from spread formations.

“You have to get the right circumstances to dial those gadget (plays) up. They can’t just run anywhere and (the timing) fit moment,” Whittingam said.

The Utes exploited UNLV’s man coverage again early in the second quarter, but this time the play was run to perfection.

With the Utes threatening on the third down and four-yard situation at UNLV 27-yard line and UNLV in man coverage, the Utes turned a first down play into a touchdown with a jailbreak screen pass to Brent Casteel.

Not only did the linemen release and set up the screen in the secondary exactly the way the play is designed, but also UNLV’s man coverage in the secondary made each U receiver only responsible for blocking one guy. Once every linemen and receiver executed his blocking assignment, it was a clear path for Casteel to cruise into the promised land.

“They had that jailbreak screen they were running to Casteel. I don’t even know if anybody touched him-there might have been one guy that touched him?we didn’t play that play very good,” Stanford said.

Whittingham remarked afterward that the team always has a few of these plays up its sleeve every game; the problem is the Utes don’t always find the optimal time to use them.

Maybe the Utes did catch UNLV a little off guard because Utah hasn’t shown a tendency to utilize those types of plays, but the fact that Utah was able to develop these plays out of the spread offense that Stanford and company should be familiar with did raise a few eyebrows. Nevertheless, those plays came as a welcome surprise to Ute fans who have wondered if Sanford simply took that portion of the playbook with him when he left in 2004.