After a gut wrenching loss on Saturday, the Cougars (1-2, 0-1) will travel to Salt Lake City to play a Utah Utes (1-2, 0-0) team who is also coming off a gut punch in their last game. The flight from Washington to Utah has been very familiar for the Cougs as they will be making the flight for the 3rd straight year and the 5th time in the last 6 matchups. This will be Utah’s conference opener.
Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes and Cougs have played 8 times so far and have split the series evenly at 4-4. Prior to the Pacific Athletic Conference’s expansion, the Cougs and Utes met 10 times and split those games evenly at 5-5 to make the all-time series knotted up at 9-9.
Since 2011, the Cougs have played the Utes just 3 times in Pullman. This will be the 6th time since the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 that the Cougs have had to be the ones getting on a plane and heading down to Salt Lake City. The only other team who’s had to play an inter-division opponent more on the road since divisions were created in 2011, is the California Golden Bears, who will be making their 7th trip to Pasadena in 11 games at the end of the regular season to play annual rival UCLA.
The first conference game between the Utes and Cougs came in November of 2011 in Pullman when the Utes knocked off the Cougs in overtime 30-27 to knock off any hope Paul Wulff had of leading his alma mater to a bowl game as the Cougs lost their seventh game of the year.
Mike Leach would make his first trip to SLC in 2012 as the Cougs would go down 31-0 at half and narrowly avoid a shutout as Jeff Tuel would return to the game and throw a touchdown as the clock expired to polish off a 49-6 blowout loss.
Leach would get his revenge the following season as the Cougs locked up their first bowl eligible season since 2003 with a 49-37 win in Pullman. In 2014, the Cougs would rally from a 14-point deficit with just above 8 minutes remaining as Connor Halliday hit Vince Mayle for an 81 yard touchdown with just under 5 minutes to go to give the Cougs a 28-27 win in Salt Lake City.
The winning streak wouldn’t resume until 2017 as the Luke Falk-led Cougs would jump out to a 26-10 lead and hang on to win it in SLC once again, 33-25. In shades of 2014, Gardner Minshew would hit Easop Winston for another 80+ yard touchdown catch and run with under 5 minutes to go to give the Cougs a big-time win in Pullman 28-24 in 2018.
The Cougs have come up short in the last two meetings, both taking place in Utah. The prior being in 2019 as Utah rattled off 24 unanswered to win 38-13. Last year was somehow even worse. To end the weird, patchwork, 2020 season, the Cougs traveled to Salt Lake City, again, and took a commanding 28-7 lead into halftime. The offensive staff felt so safe about the outcome of the game, they even tried to run a fake QB kneel at the end of the first half to try and put six more on the board. It failed and apparently motivated Utah in the locker room as the Utes rattled off 38 unanswered in an all-time collapse against a thin WSU roster to win 45-28.
The 2021 Utah Utes
The 2021 version of Kyle Whittingham’s Utes were regarded as a serious Pac-12 South contender at the beginning of the year. They began the season ranked 24th in the Associated Press’s top 25 and reached 21st after Week 1. A Week 2 trip to Provo against the BYU other Cougars for the Holy War sent them out of the top 25 as BYU topped Utah 26-17 for their first win in the series since 2009.
Utah would try to bounce back with a trip to San Diego State to play the Aztecs but would fall short as San Diego State’s ‘philly special’ 2-point conversion in triple overtime would give the Aztecs the 33-31 lead and win after Utah failed to score on their own triple overtime 2-point try.
For the 2nd straight week, the Cougs will see a team coming out with a different look. This time it’s at the quarterback position. After 3 mediocre starts as the Utes gunslinger, the former transfer from Baylor Charlie Brewer has decided to leave the program. It will be sophomore Cameron Rising leading the Utah offense this week.
In his lone two appearances this season for Utah, Rising is 21 for 34 (61.8%) for 182 yards and four touchdowns to zero interceptions. All of this outside of the two passes on two attempts for 29 yards and a touchdown at the end of the Week 1 Weber State game, came during the Utes comeback attempt in San Diego State last Saturday. Rising also carried the ball 5 times for 46 yards against the Aztecs after entering the game with about 5 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. He made 1 other appearance last year against USC, throwing 6 passes, 3 completed, for 45 yards and 1 interception.
At running back, it will be the young duo of Micah Bernard and Tavion Thomas getting the majority of carries for the Utes. Thomas got the majority of carries in Week 1 with 12 while Bernard took care of the rock in Weeks 2 and 3 with a total of 29 carries. Both running backs average yards per carry are heavily weighted on Weeks 1 and 2 when Thomas ran for 107 in Week 1 and Bernard for 146 in Week 2, both on 12 carries. Both were non-factors last week however as Bernard outran the quarterback Rising by only 1 yard on 12 more carries for 47 rushing yards.
Unlike USC last week, the Utes have spread the ball around to a multitude of receivers. Five receivers have more than eight catches with three in double-digits. A good number of those receptions came in the San Diego State game as TE Brant Kuithe and WR’s Soloman Enis and Britain Covey each reeled in at least seven receptions.
Overall, the Utah offense ranks just 16 yards ahead of the WSU offense at 8th in the Pac-12 in total offense, 9th in total passing yards and 6th in rushing yards. The Utah offense hasn’t exactly been torching opposing defenses to start the year, but the WSU defense also hasn’t been a brick wall out there either. It will be interesting to see if Rising can create a RISE in the Utah offensive production. (I’m sorry)
The Utes defense has been stout so far however. Allowing just under 300 total yards a game and under 140 yards through the air, Utah’s pass defense ranks 2nd in the Pac-12 and held the Aztecs to just 44 yards passing last week. This spells trouble for whoever Nick Rolovich decides to start at quarterback next week with an already limited aerial attack. Junior Linebacker Devin Lloyd also leads the Pac-12 in tackles by a wide range 38 total tackles as he recorded 12 in Week 1 and 13 in Weeks 2 and 3.
As of Friday morning, ESPN has the Utes as the favorites at -15 and an 88.4% chance of winning. The over/under is set at 53.5. While the Cougs haven’t shown a ton this year, 15 still seems like a lot of points in a spread against another 1-2 team.
Keys to Success
The health of Jayden de Laura is a concern for Saturday. Even when he did come back into the game last week against USC, he looked to have a slight limp as he trotted on and off the field. Any injury with the knee is cause for concern especially with a quarterback who relies on his legs to make plays happen like de Laura. It’s likely we see a different quarterback Saturday morning. The question is, which one will it be? Rolovich has already played 4 quarterbacks and went to Gabalis when de Laura wasn’t ready to start the 2nd half. However, he did go to his veteran Jarrett Guarantano to start Week 1 and I believe he will roll with Guarantano to get his 2nd start of the year if de Laura is indeed a no-go.
The Utah pass defense is already one of the best at air traffic control in the Pac-12 this year and having to roll out a backup quarterback isn’t going to help the issue of moving the ball through the air. If the Cougs are going to want to effectively move the ball, they’re likely going to have to rely on Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh to do the heavy lifting. Borghi was able to get out to a hot start on the first drive of the game against USC as the play-calling was able to get him on the outside and into space without having to rely on the interior offensive line to hold and push around USC. However, USC was able to start containing the run better and better as the game went on. The run game is going to have to be constant through out to avoid having to air the ball out too much against a good pass defense.
The Cougs defense was up to the task against a talented USC team in the 1st half but once fatigue set in from having to be constantly on the field in the 3rd quarter, they started to allow the Trojans to drive down the field at will. The defensive line has started to look better than it did in Week 1 as they’ve created more pressures and have held the running game in check for the most part. The Utes offense hasn’t been anything to special to date but the Cougs are going to have to worry about matchup problems when going against the TE duo of Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid. Linebackers Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers should have a busy day trying to keep them in check while also keeping an eye on Rising. Jaylen Watson should also benefit from not having to cover future NFL player Drake London this week after London torched Watson all 2nd half.
If the offense can do enough to make sure the defense isn’t on the field all game, they should be able to keep this game close. However we have yet to see anything from a de Laura-less offense that inspires any confidence what so ever as the Cougs have only scored 3 points on a drive that excludes de Laura. Getting Borghi and the run game started shouldn’t be too big of an issue but keeping the run game there all game is something we haven’t really seen yet and will be important in making this a competitive football game.
There were a lot of things I liked from the defense in the first half of the USC game. The defensive line was able to get to the quarterback and cause some miscues, the secondary held up as best they could against talented receivers like Drake London and they were able to cause a handful of turnovers. If they can avoid giving up the 3rd and longs and having to stay on the field for too long, they should be able to keep the Utah offense in check.
This will be another big test for this Washington State team. An early battle against some adversity on their first road trip of the year will be another big telling sign of who this team is. Without de Laura at quarterback last week, the team folded rather quickly. If de Laura is indeed out, how will the offense respond?
Both teams are coming out motivated and looking to prove something after being handed gut-wrenching losses a week ago. A win for either side could do a lot as we rap up the 1st quarter of the season.
For the Cougs, a win on the first road trip of the year in a tough Utah environment could be enough to get this season back on track. Another embarrassing loss however could spell serious trouble for a team and staff that already is under a lot of heat.
Kickoff will be at 11:30AM PST (12:30PM MDT) on the Pac-12 Network in what should be a gorgeous day for football in Utah.