SALT LAKE CITY — It didn’t make sense. The 2011 Utah football team was near the bottom in virtually every offensive statistic, yet went 8-5, using a quarterback who didn’t get another major college offer. It even defeated Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
Then-offensive coordinator Norm Chow snatched Jon Hays from the bargain bin and went from there. The Utes were brand new to the Pac-12, yet came one win from claiming the South Division championship.
How did Chow do it?
Part of it was that USC was on probation. Still, the Utes beat UCLA to gain the tiebreaker. A loss to Colorado kept them from the championship game.
“We did what we were capable of doing, which is very simple,” Chow said on Monday. “We handed the ball off, ran a couple of play-action passes.”
That is simple.
Maybe the 2017 Utes should have thought of it.
Utah is last in the Pac-12 in third-down conversions, 11th in red-zone touchdowns and scoring, 10th in red-zone offense, and ninth in total offense and fourth-down conversions.
Adapting on the fly in 2011 wasn’t as simple as the legendary offensive coach professes. His explanations are pared, just as his offensive repertoire was six years ago. It was an impressive adaptation. Hays had signed to play at Division II Nebraska-Omaha, but the school defunded football the summer before his planned arrival. With injury-plagued Jordan Wynn at quarterback, the Utes were in a dicey position to begin. Chow convinced coach Kyle Whittingham to add Hays as an insurance policy. It turned out to be a wise move because Wynn’s season ended in the fourth game.
Chow wasn’t without resources, despite Utah’s newness in the conference. He had a small but durable running back in John White and an experienced offensive line that included current NFL player Tony Bergstrom. Using a pro-set offense, Chow simplified and maximized.
A former offensive coordinator at BYU, North Carolina State, USC, UCLA and the Tennessee Titans, Chow modestly says he has “no advice for anybody; my only advice is coming from a guy sitting on the couch.” But if asked, he says he would “line them up and knock people off the mark.”
He continued, “Line up behind the center and hand off to a big old running back and let the offensive line do their work.”
Current Ute running back Zack Moss is 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, not too far from NFL back Devontae Booker, who is 5-11, 218.
Chow’s offense didn’t overwhelm anyone. It was last in the league in total offense, passing offense, first downs and third-down conversions and 11th in red-zone touchdowns. However, it was sixth in red-zone offense, four spots ahead of this year’s team.
The 2017 Utes are sixth best in sacks allowed, compared to 10th in 2011.
Utah’s 2011 approach was suited for a big, strong offensive line, which it usually has. Chow’s attack often employed one or two deep passes early in the game to keep the defenses honest, then settled in to a punishing ground-first game.
The success lay in Chow’s ability to simplify and tailor things to Hays’ modest ability.
This year’s team has more talent but no more success.
Chow stresses he isn’t advising the current Utes. But this year’s team, on a four-game losing streak, is lacking in offense, especially in the red zone. Troy Taylor — Utah’s ninth offensive coordinator in a decade — has his team eighth in rushing offense and first downs and 10th in passing efficiency.
“The problem with the red zone is the field is squished,” Chow said. “You have to — from an old fella’s opinion — line up with the tight ends and the two backs and pound it in there.”
Chow modestly says he did nothing extraordinary, and statistically that’s true. While the defense kept the Utes competitive, the offense was effective enough to win eight games — an unlikely event this year. The 2011 Utes never lost more than two consecutive games.
“As a coach, your job is to magnify the skills of what you have. Most coaches know that. I’m not unique,” Chow said.
He went on to say the spread offense is complicated and, with so many teams utilizing it, “defenses know how to stop that stuff.”13 comments on this story
Chow is living the life these days in Manhattan Beach, California. He does a weekly radio show on 1280 The Zone in Salt Lake and volunteers once a week with his son’s high school team. The rest of the time he works as an “an unpaid Uber driver,” shuttling his grandchildren around with his wife.
His single year at Utah, preceding a stop as head coach at Hawaii, was memorable.
“A very enjoyable coaching year,” said the Utah graduate. “I have fond memories.”
It was enjoyable enough that Chow even joked about returning this week.
“Tell Kyle if he ever wants a guy to come out of retirement, to call me,” he said.