We’ve covered the game a bunch from our perspective, so let’s check in with the other side. We caught up with Shane Roberts of Block U for a quick Q&A. I also answered a half dozen questions from him; you’ll find those after his responses.
CougCenter: Currently, Utah ranks 1st by S&P+ in defense and 115th in S&P+ in offense. That’s amazingly weird. Are either of those units as good or bad as those extreme rankings would suggest?
Yeah, very weird. On defense, I’d say those numbers are pretty close, because this is as deep of a defense as we’ve seen at Utah at all three levels. It’s a very experienced group, and they are about as fast of a defense as we’ve seen at Utah. There are playmakers at almost every position, and they are so fun to watch.
On offense, they are more talented than that ranking, no doubt. They’ve just had a hard time putting it together. They have one of the best backs in the conference, with Zack Moss, but he was a bit beat up the last two games. The line played much better against UW, but has been inconsistent, and the wide outs can’t catch balls that hit them in the hands. So it’s a multi pronged issue, but the talent is there, they just need to bring it together.
CougCenter: Obviously this year is a low point for the offense (so far), but Utah has generally struggled offensively under Kyle Whittingham, never finishing above 50th in S&P+ under him. Why do you think that is?
Ultimately, I think it’s been a lack of overall offensive talent, specially on the outside, and in some areas the QB. Utah’s been good in the trenches and at running back, but they’ve been a bit slower getting the wide receivers and the QBs. I know after the last couple of classes they have the right guys in those spots now, they just need to develop more. Also, the turnover in coordinator can’t help either. It’s hard to establish a consistent identity if guys are leaving or are being fired. You combine those factors and the offense will lag behind the other two areas of the team.
CougCenter: What are the specific struggles with this particular offense that you hope the bye week straightened out?
Wide receivers. They’ve had 15 dropped balls so far this season, and some of them would have been huge plays and touchdowns, especially against Washington. It’s been maddening to watch. I think the line is rounding into shape well, and the running game is there, we just need those guys on the outside to complete a pass so the chains keep moving.
CougCenter: The Air Raid has generally been successful against Utah’s defense during this three-game win streak by WSU over the Utes. What makes you think this year will be different?
Listen, I don’t know how much different it will be because Wazzu moves the ball so damn well, what Utah needs to do is keep them out of the end zone. Give up FGs instead of TDs. Utah’s secondary is the best we’ve likely ever seen at Utah, and they can man up across the board without much issue, so they’re good there. One place Utah has improved greatly is linebacker, especially with Chase Hansen moving there, and that should help in the pass game as well.
CougCenter: Who is the one player whose name we will rue after this one?
I think a guy like Chase Hansen can have a big game for the Utes in this game. He’s so good at baiting QBs into bad throws and just has incredible instincts. On offense, Britain Covey. The dude is a nightmare for defenders, and he will come at teams in the slot, on the outside, out of the backfield, in the punt game, just so many ways.
CougCenter: Tell us why Utah is going to win.
If Utah’s going to win, it’s because the offense clicks together finally. They’ve shown some flashes, but for some reason they get in their own way so often. If they play clean, catch the ball, and don’t make mistakes, they’ll win the game.
Block U: How do you think the team has rallied and responded especially after the off season they had?
Much better than most of us expected them to. Look, WSU hasn’t ever been a program where a bowl game is an expectation every year, and given the heavy losses in personnel and coaching this offseason -- including the death by suicide of the presumed starting quarterback, Tyler Hilinski, just after last season ended -- most people were figuring it could be a real struggle to get back to a fourth consecutive bowl. After more or less cruising through the last 10 quarters of the non-conference schedule, the Cougs very nearly won at USC (maybe should have won), and they’re sure looking like a team that’s destined to get back to the postseason. That’s a pretty cool place for us to be, and the players deserve a ton of credit for that.
Block U: The Wazzu defense took some big losses, including DC Grinch going to OSU, and Hercules Mata’afa moving on, how have they rebuilt?
The new defensive coordinator is Tracy Claeys, who was best known to our fans as the guy who shut down our offense in the 2016 Holiday Bowl as the coach of the Minnesota Gophers. What’s neat about what he’s done is that he’s adapted himself to the talent on hand; the system he’s running right now uses Grinch’s terminology, and looks a heck of a lot like what Grinch ran, emphasizing penetration and disruption at the line of scrimmage. That will change over time as the personnel morphs into something more ideal for him, but he deserves a ton of credit for adjusting -- most coaches don’t do that. The strength of the unit is the linebackers, led by sixth-year senior Peyton Pelluer, who is your typically tough middle linebacker. Flanking him are Jahad Woods, who is a speedster, and nickel back Hunter Dale, who is a hybrid LB/DB in this system and will make plays all over the field.
Block U: Seems like Luke Falk was a bit polarizing to some fans at Wazzu, how has the program filled the QB spot?
You won’t find very many fans who don’t think Gardner Minshew II isn’t an upgrade from Falk, who had what was easily his worst season last year. Minshew is a grad transfer from East Carolina, where he was a part-time starter the last two seasons. He was all set to transfer to Alabama, hold a clipboard, and transition into coaching. But WSU was looking for a QB to fill the vacancy left by Hilinski, friend of Mike Leach and Air Raid pioneer Hal Mumme knew this guy, they got connected, and the rest is looking like history. Minshew came in and won the job nearly immediately -- there was a “competition,” but it was pretty clear who the best guy was -- and while we were worried that maybe said more about the other guys who had been here for years (the Air Raid is famously difficult to master, and East Carolina was horrible, so how good can he be?), that turned out not to be the case. Minshew has gotten better with every game, proving to be an accurate passer, excellent with his feet, and tough as nails. He’s a massive reason -- maybe the biggest reason -- WSU looks like it should cruise past six wins again.
Block U: Which wide receivers are going to drive us mad on Saturday and keep moving chains? Same with the running backs?
All of them: WSU has six guys with at least 150 yards receiving (one of them a running back), and four guys over 200 yards. The closest thing WSU has to a go-to receiver is Tay Martin, the “X” -- he lines up outside on the left. He’s the most physically gifted of WSU’s pass catchers, leading the team in every receiving statistic, but here’s the thing: He was held to just three receptions for one yard last week (it was clear USC was trying to stop him in particular), so all Minshew did was throw it to everyone else, piling up 344 yards and three TDs. The Cougs can burn you at any time with any of the four receivers on the field; Easop Winston Jr. (the “Z,” outside to the right) was the beneficiary last week with six catches for 143 yards. Jamire Calvin is an explosive receiver from the “Y” (typically inside to the right) who I suspect is in for a big game today. And WSU features a two-headed monster at running back with James Williams and Max Borghi. Williams is rarely brought down by the first guy in space, while Borghi -- a true freshman whom Stanford tried to flip at the last minute -- is a decisive, physical runner. Together, they have accounted for more than 500 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. In this way, it’s a prototypical Air Raid: Anyone can beat you from anywhere.
Block U: What’s the biggest concern going into this game that Wazzu has?
Utah’s defense probably is the best one we’ve seen; how is the offense going to handle that? Also, special teams has been spotty, and you can draw a direct line from that (botched PAT, blocked field goal) to last week’s loss to the Trojans. We might not have won even if we did execute in that phase, but we definitely lost because of it. Hopefully that’s cleaned up, because I presume the Utes can do some things in that phase, just like they always seem to.
Block U: Why does Wazzu win a 4th straight over the Utes?
Because the gap between WSU’s defense and Utah’s offense is much, much larger than the gap between WSU’s offense and Utah’s defense. Provided there’s no weirdness -- a sudden spate of turnovers by the Cougs, or some more horrendous special teams play at inopportune times -- I’m thinking this looks something like 27-17, WSU.