Washington State travels to Salt Lake City to take on the Utah Utes (5 p.m. PDT, Pac-12 Networks), and for the first time since the season opener against Rutgers, we have the opportunity to check in with one of our SB Nation brethren to get the inside scoop on the Cougars' upcoming opponent.
CougCenter: Observers seem to be putting a lot of stock in the nice win on the road against Michigan. What did Utah fans learn about their team in that victory?
BlockU: It was more about individual insights than any revelations about the team. Utes fans learned that 6-foot-7 quarterback Travis Wilson is both the right guy to have under center to run new OC Dave Christensen's offense (as backup Kendal Thompson struggled) and one tough football player. Kaelin Clay is extremely dangerous in the return game and a bona fide weapon that other teams must consider in their game plan (three return touchdowns, including two punt return TDs and a 100-yard kickoff return TD). Utah may have the best special teams unit in the country, with Clay, punter Tom Hackett, and kicker Andy Phillips. Gionni Paul was a great addition to the team and gives Utah a linebacker who can affect opposing offenses. Free safety Tevin Carter was worth the wait, and strong safety Brian Blechen looks like he might be 100 percent for the first time in about three years.
CougCenter: Travis Wilson is back. What are his strengths and weaknesses as a passer?
BlockU: His strengths are that the offense just runs better when he's under center. He's a big, tough player (as mentioned above) with a strong, accurate arm. He's more athletic than he's given credit for, and can get both chunks of yards on the ground, as well as a few tough yards if left one-on-one with a linebacker. His weaknesses are that he's not going to go burning a defense with his legs, even while he's capable of picking up a first down. He's not going to take the ball 60 yards to the house. In the passing game, he has some bad habits, such as throwing the ball side arm, which somewhat negates his height advantage. It causes some of his passes to get batted down at the line. Another weakness, as seen in the Michigan game, is that his enthusiasm can get the better of him, causing him to make poor decisions. For Utah to be successful, Wilson can't expose himself to those hits all season.
CougCenter: The running game was strong in the first two games, but anemic against Michigan. How do you explain the massive drop off?
BlockU: Credit where credit is due, the Michigan front seven is one of the best in college football. Especially when Thompson was in the game, Michigan began stacking the box. It wasn't until Wilson returned that Utah was able to loosen up that Michigan defense by throwing the ball. We expect the rushing game to improve this weekend.
CougCenter: What are the different ways Utah likes to try and get the ball to explosive wide receiver Dres Anderson?
BlockU: New offensive coordinator Dave Christensen has created a number of plays to get the ball in space to his playmakers. For Anderson, it's been bubble screens, deep balls, drag routes, crossing routes, quick slants, and against Washington State, I think you'll see a fly sweep to keep the Cougar's front seven honest.
CougCenter: Utah's pass rush is vaunted, but the Utes couldn't muster even one sack in last season's loss to WSU. Aberration, or perhaps a signal that the Utes might struggle with a passing offense that gets the ball out quickly?
BlockU: Utah's 4-3 defense is primarily designed to stop the run and force teams to throw the ball. The effectiveness of that scheme was on display both in 2009 against Alabama, as well as last Saturday against Michigan, whose power running scheme is modeled after Alabama. However, against teams whose primary weapon is the pass, Utah's press man coverage has to be solid. Last season, Utah's cornerbacks weren't good enough to defend the Air Raid and give the front seven time to get to Connor Halliday.
This season, Utah has three solid corners, but the Air Raid's base formation is four wide, so we'll see if the Utes can handle both the extra wideout and the running back out of the backfield. Certainly, Halliday's ability to get the ball out quickly frustrates a pass rush, but he's also taken nine sacks and thrown five interceptions in just four games (an average of two sacks and one interception per), indicating he can make mistakes when rushed. As head coach Kyle Whittingham said, Utah doesn't need to sack Halliday every time, just upset his rhythm. One last thing to consider, the words "lacerated liver." If fans of Washington State don't remember those words, I'm sure Connor Halliday does.
CougCenter: The Utes haven't seen an offense that even remotely resembles the Air Raid this year. How do you think they'll cope?
BlockU: First, Idaho State, Utah's first opponent this season, runs a variation of the Air Raid offense, so Utah has seen something like it, while not at the level that Washington State head coach Mike Leach brings to the field. The Air Raid is a yard-churning machine. There is no doubt about that. However, Washington State ranks just 51st in the country in scoring offense at 35.3 points per game (the Utes, by comparison, rank seventh at 47 ppg). Halliday leads the nation in passing yards at 1,901, but his 7.99 yards per attempt places him tied for 46th (Utah's Wilson is sixth at 10.7 ypa). So is Wazzu's offense a juggernaut or smoke and mirrors? Because Utah lost one of their best cover corners to a season ending knee injury, I expect Utah to struggle a bit with four- and five-wide sets. But their pass rush, as well as new linebackers Gionni Paul and Nate Orchard, may offset that weakness in the secondary.
To me it really comes down to which you believe: Is Washington State the team that pummeled Utah 49-37 in Pullman last season, or are they the team that got waxed 49-6 in Salt Lake City two years ago? Is it the Air Raid or the home field? (Maybe, it's as simple as the first team to 49 wins.) We'll see on Saturday in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
BlockU: Washington State is 1-3 entering Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mike Leach's Air Raid ranks ninth in the country in passing offense, having racked up 2,170 yards, but they rank just 51st in scoring offense at 35.3 points per game. Connor Halliday leads the nations in passing yards at 1,901, but ranks just 46th in yards per attempt. Will the real Washington State please stand up? Who is this Cougars team?
Interactive graphic: Previewing WSU vs. Utah
You won't find the Utes in the top 25 in most offensive categories, yet they're rolling at 3-0 with the second highest point differential in the Pac-12. Let's explore how they're doing it.
CougCenter: It's true that WSU has piled up a fair amount of yards running the Air Raid, and it's true that perhaps the Cougs haven't scored as many points as you might expect from those raw numbers. There are two explanations for that. The first has to do with turnovers; WSU has given the ball away six times on offense, so that obviously renders a lot of yardage null. The second has to do with sometimes having trouble punching it in the end zone - the Cougs are 75th in red zone touchdown efficiency.
That said, we're still in somewhat small sample sizes, and a lot of that has to do with piling up tons of yards against Nevada and scoring just 13 points after going 1-of-6 on red zone TDs. If you take out that turd of a performance, the Cougs are 14-of-19 on red zone TDs, including 4-of-6 against Oregon, and averaging more than 42 points in those three games. That's probably the "real" WSU.
BlockU: Washington State went to the New Mexico Bowl last season, and with a quarterback like Connor Halliday returning, expectations had to be high in Pullman. Washington State played very well last weekend, taking no. 2 Oregon to the wire. But their overall record is still just 1-3 after four games. How is the 1-3 start viewed by the Wazzu faithful?
CougCenter: Disappointing, to be sure. I doubt you'd find a fan that didn't think WSU should be at least 2-1 after the first three games, and most thought 3-0 was a pretty good bet. There actually was some (really stupid and reactionary) talk about firing Mike Leach. But that reactionary nature cuts both ways, and people appear to be encouraged by what went down against Oregon.
The reality is that WSU is a little unfortunate to be 1-3. In Football Outsiders' F/+ metric, WSU is the highest rated three-loss team, by a wide margin. If any number of things -- particularly related to turnovers and penalties -- go different in any of the three losses, any of those games could have been wins, including Oregon. It's pretty obvious this team is better than its record, but that doesn't really mean a whole lot in a bottom-line business when the program is trying to get to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in a decade.
BlockU: Do you feel Washington State is coming into Rice-Eccles Stadium with momentum based on how well they played against Oregon, or are they a bit deflated because of the 1-3 record and the close loss at home?
CougCenter: It will be a matter of focus and intensity. The one thing WSU has been consistent about under Leach is inconsistency in those areas, and it's a big part of why they're 1-3 instead of 3-1. The Cougs clearly were keyed up for Oregon -- it was a night game at Martin Stadium, their first sold out home game of the year -- and the question is whether they'll be able to bring that kind of intensity two weeks in a row. Recent history says that's a tall task; heck, the last time WSU visited Rice Eccles, it was after a narrow loss to Stanford. And we all know how that turned out.
BlockU: Connor Halliday is a well-known commodity, but the wide receivers (at least to Utah fans) are not. What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of Halliday's favorite targets?
CougCenter: With eight guys playing two distinct positions in the Air Raid (inside and outside receiver) that require two distinctly different skill sets, there's a lot to chew on here. On the outside to Halliday's left, Vince Mayle and Dom Williams split time. At 6-3/220, Mayle is as physically imposing a receiver as there is in the Pac-12. He's got great hands and very good speed and he just abuses smaller guys. Williams is lankier and kind of a speedy glider; he got behind Ifo Ekpre-Olomu twice for touchdowns on Saturday.
Inside of them is primarily Rickey Galvin, who isn't particularly explosive, but is generally sure handed. The most underrated member of the group is the right inside receiver, River Cracraft. He's started since day one as a true freshman a year ago, and he just knows how to find holes in a defense. On the outside on the right is Isiah Myers. He won't wow you with his raw speed, but he's as good after the catch as anyone on the team. He catches everything.
Put simply, there are no weaknesses. Every guy who steps on the field -- including backups Calvin Green, Robert Lewis and Drew Loftus - has the ability to do serious damage.
Oh, and they're all vicious blockers. As soon as one of their teammates catches a ball, they lock up their guy -- or find someone to decleat.
BlockU: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Wazzu defense?
CougCenter: After a poor start to the year against Rutgers, the run defense has really come along. They shut down Nevada, which purposes to run, and the Cougs did very well against Oregon, whose highly touted running backs could muster just 4.3 yards per carry. The overall number versus the Ducks climbs up over 6.2 when you factor in Mariota's carries, but he's such a special talent, I don't really think how a team performs against him is all that predictive. Defensive tackle Xavier Cooper is talented and had his most disruptive game of the year against the Ducks, and the linebackers have come miles in their run fits.
It's behind them where it gets incredibly dicey. After a change in the depth chart, the Cougs now start one second-year sophomore, two redshirt freshmen and a true freshman in the secondary. The talent is obvious, but they still make a lot of mental errors that lead to unnecessary big plays. Each of Oregon's touchdowns were through the air and wide, wide open. They're getting better, but the improvement needs to get even more rapid.