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WSU Vs. Utah: A First Look At The Utes

The Washington State and Utah football teams will face off for the first time as conference foes this Saturday as the Cougars face another "elimination game" of sorts.  Last week, WSU kept bowl hopes alive with a stunning victory over the once-mighty Arizona State Sun Devils.  Earlier in the season, when looking at these last two home games, most were considering the winnable match-up to be the game with Utah. However, with the way the Utes have been playing of late, this is just another tough game on the schedule.

After losing their first four conference games, Utah was probably longing for the days of the MWC. A series of great offensive failures and a flurry of turnovers were difficult for the Utes to overcome. Teams that they should have otherwise been closely matched with, like Washington and Cal, were blowing them out. To top it all off, starting QB Jordan Wynn was lost for the season after injuring his non-throwing shoulder against the Huskies and requiring surgery. But since losing 34-10 to Cal, things have changed.

Utah's conference schedule was front-loaded, and they've been seeing much more of the bottom half of the conference. They've been able to take care of the ball and have won three straight, making them bowl eligible and still leaving them a chance at the Pac-12 South title. They know that as well as anyone, and with only a home game against Colorado to finish the season, they will surely be motivated coming to Pullman.

Offense and Defense previews after the jump.

OFFENSE: 25.1 PPG, 5.0 YPP, #101 S&P

The Utes offense will be the worst offense the Cougs have faced since UNLV. With any semblance of effectiveness from this group, Utah would be running away with the South Division. They are 14% worse than an average FBS offense, and that puts them in the neighborhood of football juggernauts like Rice and Middle Tennessee State.

The Utes passing game obviously took a hit with the loss of Wynn, but he wasn't exactly setting the world on fire before he went down. Backup Jon Hays has stepped in and actually has a higher yards per pass attempt. The problem for the Utes is that he throws an interception on 3.3% more of his passes. That has translated to 7 interceptions to his eight touchdowns on the season. 

The leading receiver for Utah is junior DeVonte Christopher, who has caught 29 balls for 450 yards for 4 touchdowns on the season. Freshman Dres Anderson and junior tight end Dallin Rogers are tied for second on the team with 22 catches a piece.  Rogers is worked heavily in the short passing game, as he averages only 7.27 yards per catch.

Overall, Football Outsiders ranks the Utes' passing game 97th and their performance on passing downs 110th. They are 22.2% worse than an average FBS team on passing downs.  Obviously the Cougar defense would do very well for themselves to step up on first and second down to get some third and longs. That will take some work in the running game, as the Utes run the ball 54% of the time.

They key man to stop in the run game is junior John White IV.  He carries the ball almost 24 times a game. On the season he is averaging 5.0 yards a carry, has 1191 yards, and 12 touchdowns. With all this success, one would think that the Utes have a highly rated rushing attack. S&P disagrees. It has Utah as the 100th ranked run game, 11.4% worse than average. This had me puzzled, so I decided to ask an expert.

I shot an e-mail to the guy who created S&P, SB Nation's Bill Connelly, and asked him for an explanation.  Here was his response (he said he will also give a more detailed response in mailbag column tomorrow morning - so be sure to check that out):

It looks like White's Adj. POE ( is +1.5 right now, meaning that he's basically gained what a normal back would gain given the blocking he has received and the opponents against which the carries have come.

Click on the link inside the quote for an explanation of POE (don't worry, I had to as well). Basically White has performed against the competition how all other opponents have performed against the competition. Most of the teams Utah have played are not very good in run defense, and against some of them he has not performed all that well. For example, against Arizona, White carried the ball 27 times for 104 yards. At first glance, this looks like a fine performance. 4.0 yards a carry is respectable and 104 yards is a pretty finishing total. Where White and Utah look less impressive is comparing them to all of Arizona's other opponents, who have averaged 5.59 yards per carry. So while 4.0 yards a carry seems average, in the context of Arizona's defense, it is subpar.

The more I get into the advanced stats, the less I feel I know about anything.

So what does that mean for the Cougs? Well WSU is currently allowing 4.89 yards per carry. If the Utes are to perform how they do on average, one would expect them to be a little worse than that. It's also important to point out that when Wazzu has sold out to stop the run in lieu of the pass, they have had some success (against UCLA, Stanford, and Oregon). All of those other opponents had the talent to burn WSU in the passing game eventually. It would seem that Utah would be less likely to do that. I don't doubt that the Cougs will be stacking the box come Saturday.

Stop me if I've said this before...against Cal...against Oregon State...but this is a game where the defense has a chance to perform well. The game being at home makes a difference, it seems that the defense plays better in Pullman (Stanford and Arizona State are both good offenses that didn't perform as well as expected in Martin Stadium).

DEFENSE: 19.2 PPG, 4.75 YPP, #16 S&P

This game will mark the end of a  four-game string where Washington State played the top four defenses in the Pac-12, and at this point in time Utah may be playing better than any of them. S&P has them rated 16th overall on defense and 25.4% better than average.

What followers of Washington State will always be most concerned with is how the opposing defense plays the pass. Utah is definitely a good pass defense team. They are 19th overall in Passing S&P, 26.4% better than average.  Opponents have thrown 14 interceptions to just 13 touchdowns and completed just 56.5% of their passes, which is low for a conference full of very good, accurate quarterbacks. Connor Halliday will have a tougher test that he had last week against Arizona State.

A major part of Utah's great pass defense is their ability to get pressure on the quarterback. The Utes have 28 sacks on the season. Linebacker Trevor Reilly leads the team with 5.0, followed by defensive lineman Derrick Shelby who has 4.0. Overall, the defensive line has 11.5 sacks, the linebackers have 12.5, and 4.0 from the backfield. Expect some different blitz packages out of the Utes on Saturday,

Utah is even better against the run than they are against the pass. They are holding opponents to 3.87 yards per carry and are 14th overall in rushing S&P. The Utes have stopped 33 rushes for loss on the season.  With Washington State's very poor run offense, expect tough sledding in the trenches.

Big cause for concern for the Cougs is how good Utah is against standard downs. They are 12th best in the country.  With Halliday's ability to throw the ball down the field this may not be as big of a deal as it has been for WSU when Marshall Lobbestael was at quarterback. Don't be surprised if WSU is facing a lot of third and longs. Hopefully the throw the ball up to Marquess Wilson strategy will be effective again.

Don't expect the same offensive explosion out of Washington State this week. Utah has tape on Halliday and won't be preparing all week for the short-game like the Sun Devils were a week ago.  If the passing game excels again, there will be a big reason for optimism in Cougar Nation.

Utah is in trouble if...their offense struggles as they have all season, and is unable to put points on the board. Hays can't take advantage of WSU stacking the box. Halliday is able to hook up with Wilson, Jared Karstetter, and Isiah Barton for more big plays down the field and Washington State is able to move the ball and convert in the red zone.

Utah's anemic offense is what gives the Cougs hope in this one. This should be a low-scoring game, and not the high-flying shootout we saw last Saturday. If WSU is able to take care of the ball and put together scoring drives with regularity, they have a great shot. Of course, it always seems that the defense plays their worst when the competition is bad, so I don't really know what to expect.  All I know is that the Cougs can move within one game of bowl eligibility with a win, and that will have the players, coaches, and whatever crowd braves the weather and hasn't left for break fired up.