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Utah running back John White is not about to become another Heisman Trophy winner who's showcased in a Norm Chow offense. He may not even receive a single vote this season.
Yet Chow, the Utes' offensive coordinator, confirms that White is as valuable to his team as Ty Detmer was to BYU and Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart were to USC in their award-winning seasons.
"That guy's unbelievable," Chow said.
Indispensable is an even better word, which makes White the Utes' MIP (Most Indispensable Player) and maybe all of college football's MIP, other than a few quarterbacks. To say he's personally responsible for saving Utah's season may be a stretch, considering his offensive teammates' role in his success and the way the Ute defense is playing.
But imagine this team without him.
White, a junior-college transfer, ranks eighth in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 119.1 rushing yards per game. That statistic only begins to tell his story. In the Utes' last four victories (in five weeks), White's rushing has accounted for 56.1 percent of their offensive yardage.
That's what makes his production so remarkable. Opponents know the Utes (6-4) want to run the ball, and basically have to run the ball, with fill-in quarterback Jon Hays leading the offense, but they're able to do it. That requires a convergence of factors: coaching creativity, Hays' ability to adjust plays at the line of scrimmage, blocking from the other nine players and White's skill and persistence.
"People are going to load the box up," White said, "but we're still going to come at them with our game plan, run the ball and do what we do."
The Utes have almost managed to take the quarterback out of the game, which is almost unheard of in this era. Even teams such as Army and Navy that rarely pass use the QB extensively as a runner. Most offenses use multiple rushers, rotating the featured backs, but Utah sticks with White and often runs him behind a fullback (Shawn Asiata) who's strictly a blocker.
The strategy has worked wonderfully against the Pac-12's three worst rushing defenses: Oregon State, Arizona and UCLA. Washington State and Colorado, Utah's remaining opponents, are ranked just ahead of those schools. So the schedule has eased, the Utes have improved and White has just kept running.
He's especially strong in fourth quarters, when the Utes are ahead and defenders tend to wear down and lose interest. Asked about his knack for getting better as the game goes along, the 5-foot-8, 186-pound White smiled and reported, "People have said that."
Chow is one of them. "I never thought a guy could carry that many times and be effective," he said. "That's what big backs do. That's what NFL backs do … [but] he's not a big guy."
Chow's offense ranks 109th among 120 FBS teams in total yardage. Yet if the Utes can finish 5-4 in the Pac-12 by winning their last two games, this season may reflect some of his best work.
Using formations and shifting, Chow and offensive line coach Tim Davis have creatively schemed the running game against defenses geared to stop it. "I couldn't even fathom the number of ways you could run 'inside zone' until they got here," said tackle Tony Bergstrom. "They've pulled all kinds of things out of the back pocket to try and keep this thing going."
White is making it all work. Oregon's LaMichael James is a top Heisman candidate among running backs. Yet in the two games he missed, the Ducks' offense totaled more than 1,000 yards. How would the Utes do without White? They would rather not have to find out.
College football's most productive running backs, as judged by their rushing yardage as a percentage of the team's total yards:
Player, school Yds. Team Pct.
Bobby Rainey, W. Kentucky 1,254 3,210 39.0
John White, Utah 1,119 3,073 38.7
Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State 1,278 3,718 34.3
David Wilson, Virginia Tech 1,360 4,325 31.4
Michael Dyer, Auburn 1,037 3,383 30.6 w
In Utah's six wins, John White's rushing has accounted for 50.4 percent of his team's total yardage:
Opponent White Team Pct.
Mont. St. 150 292 51.3
BYU 174 481 36.1
Pittsburgh 171 251 68.1
Oregon St. 205 287 71.4
Arizona 109 332 32.8
UCLA 167 291 57.3
Total 976 1,934 50.4
Utah at Washington St.
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