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Can WSU handle Utah's vaunted pass rush again?

The Cougars likely will need to keep Connor Halliday clean to have a good chance to beat the Utes.

WSU held up well against Oregon's pass rush last weekend.
WSU held up well against Oregon's pass rush last weekend.
WSU Athletic Communications

One of the more surprising developments of last year's defeat of Utah by WSU -- other than the relative ease of the 49-37 result itself -- was the manner in which the Cougars handled Utah's pass rush. The Utes entered the game leading the nation in sacks, yet were unable to bring Connor Halliday to the ground in the backfield even once.

It was the only game all season in which Utah did not record a sack. Of course, that stands in stark contrast to what happened in 2012 in Salt Lake City, when the Utes racked up six sacks. At the risk of oversimplifying, the difference in the two games can be boiled down to development: Both the offensive line's and Halliday's.

Utah is at its best defensively (as most teams are) when it's able to generate pressure with just its front four; in 2012, the Utes actually were able to generate heaps of pressure with just three rushers, and sometimes even two. They tried to employ the same strategy in last year's game, and it backfired: Halliday picked Utah apart to the tune of 39-of-62 for 488 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.

By the time Utah started trying to bring extra pressure, it was too late: Halliday had found a nice rhythm and was expertly exploiting the voids left by additional rushers with quick, accurate throws. Because of that, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if you see Utah dial up some stunts and blitzes early to try and get Halliday on tilt in an intense environment on the road.

Here's one such blitz you might see, which the Utes employed to pick up one of their four sacks against Michigan. As the telestrator shows, Utah overloads the offense's right side with great success:


Let's start with this: Michigan makes a total mess of this play in a way that WSU is unlikely to. You know those times you see Halliday move the running back from his left side to his right? He's counting potential rushers and putting his extra blocker nearest the most likely threat. Instead of the 3-on-2 that causes the tackle to try and block a pair of rushers and instead block neither of them, WSU almost certainly would have had hat-on-hat. Gardner also makes a huge mistake not getting out of a slow-developing play-action pass, and Halliday is likely to make sure the ball gets out quicker against an obviously threatening front.

About the only way WSU would have taken a sack on this blitz is if one of those one-on-one blockers gets flat beat. That's always a possibility, of course -- it happened repeatedly against Rutgers and certainly could be what Utah will be counting on. But given what we saw last week against Oregon (final offensive play notwithstanding), this line might be ready to handle such a challenge. We'll see if that performance travels, or if the moment proves to be too much in a hostile environment.

In addition to adjusting protection and getting the ball out quickly, WSU likely will also try to use the running game to counter exotic fronts. Here's a play from last week that you might see:


Oregon shows a front that's slightly shaded to the offense's right, so he just runs a sweep to Jamal Morrow away from it. The Ducks are playing catch up the rest of the way, and if Gerard Wicks blocks the pursuing safety instead of chipping the linebacker that Gunnar Eklund can't quite engage, Morrow might have scored on the play. As it was, he did what he's showing he can do, which is elude a tackle and burst forward for extra yards.

If Utah is able to get pressure with standard fronts, however, all bets are likely off and it's probably going to be a long day.