While near mirror images, Utah believes it has a blueprint to combat Penn State

Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III (1) steps in front of Oregon State Beavers wide receiver John Dunmore (14) for a pick six as Utah and Oregon State play at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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LOS ANGELES – Take a quick glance at the various standard statistics tracked in college football and it would be easy to see a common theme between Utah and Penn State.

In fact, the two teams are basically the same team (insert graphic of two Spider-Man characters pointing at each other) on paper. The statistics essentially mirror each other, and the teams utilize their respective personnel in similar schemes and utilize similar philosophies on how to approach a game plan.

But do the two head coaches — Utah’s Kyle Whittingham and Penn State’s James Franklin — see the similarities, or are there enough differences on film that they don’t feel like they’re playing their own team?

“It’s a physical team that we’re playing,” Whittingham said. “They’re well coached, they’re very committed to the run game, they’ve got two really good backs, freshman backs — one almost has 1,000 yards, the other one has almost 900 yards — so they’re very balanced with those two guys getting them the majority of the carries, veteran quarterback, play tough defense.

“So, yeah, I think there’s a lot of similarities between the two teams.”

Replace Whittingham’s name with Franklin’s in that quote and few would question the statement — outside of the running back’s yardage this season. Franklin’s comments about Utah could go the same way.

“I think there’s a ton of similarities in terms of the way we’re built: offense, defense and special teams trying to play complimentary football,” Franklin said. “They’ve been pretty strong over coach Whittingham’s career.

“The defensive side of the ball is probably kind of what they’ve hung their hat on, and I would say maybe we’ve been built the same way. But here’s teams with both veteran quarterbacks that have had better years offensively, and it’s gonna be a challenge. I think it should be a great game. I think we match up really well against each other and should be a great game.”

And while there are several similarities between the two programs who will meet for the first time in program history, there are enough differences that the two teams feel like there are areas to exploit.

For Penn State, it’s a similar opponent to what they generally face in the Big Ten with traditionally stout and physical defenses. But for Utah, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said it has a similar feeling to that of Oregon State – another team that resembles Utah.

In a conference generally defined by its high-powered offenses and weaker defenses (in comparison to other Power Five conferences), Oregon State is as much Utah as can be — if anything, they’re Utah from about five to seven seasons ago in their progression as a program under Jonathan Smith.

Utah secured a 42-16 win over Oregon State at home in Week 5 this season, but it’s an opponent that gave the Utes fits in 2021 in a loss. That series over the last couple of years has provided a good blueprint for Utah in how to scheme against Oregon State … and presumably against Penn State, although nothing is ever completely the same on the football field.

For safety Cole Bishop, who agreed with the Penn State matchup being a game similar to Oregon State, it’s a matter of being the most physical team on the field and staying sound assignment.

“Our biggest thing right now is being physical and doing your job,” he said. “If we can out-physical them and beat your guy, do your assignment, then we’ll be just fine on defense.

“I can see why people say (we’re similar), but we’ll see on Monday how our programs contrast.”

Early on in the season – and even at times late in the season – Utah’s defense has struggled to be assigned sound and has given up big plays to opponents. But Scalley said the team has done better to worry more about the team and less on a singular performance on the defensive end.

Every player is still asked to own their responsibility in the defense, but there has been more of a concentration on the collective group in the game.

“You saw early on a bunch of guys just trying to do their 1/11th and trying to get their job done instead of playing together as a complete defense, and you see that a little bit in the celebration now; they all celebrate together, and they’re having fun together,” Scalley said. “They’re buying into each other, understanding that, OK, not only am I understanding my 1/11th, but what that 11th does for the other guy.”

Senior Gabe Reid said it’s a defense that has learned to manage the “ups and downs throughout the game” and has come together to fight the full 60 minutes of game time. So while Penn State may resemble Utah in several facets of the game, Reid believes the team is up for the challenge – whatever that challenge is that the Nittany Lions throw at them.

“As long as we continue to rely on each other and just focus on the next play, the next drive we’ll be good,” Reid said. “We have the guys, and obviously Penn State has a good team, but I feel confident about our abilities and I think we’ll make the plays we need to make.”

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer of University of Utah athletics — primarily football, men’s basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.

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