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PREVIEW: More than you need to know about the Cougs vs. Utes

Football goes on. Let’s see how likely WSU fans are to feel good after Saturday night vs. the Utes.

NCAA Football: Utah at Brigham Young Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes after a heartbreaking loss, it seems fitting that the season should be over. In college football, that might happen in a bowl game or in rare circumstances the college football playoff. In other sports, there are plenty of postseason opportunities for fans to experience crushing defeats. However, after some debacles, the show does go on.

And so it will, as the Washington State Cougars travel to Salt Lake City to face the Utah Utes in Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night (7 pm, FS1). The Utes are coming off their own disappointing loss, falling to USC last Friday.

Kyle Whittingham’s crew was a favorite to win the Pac-12, and a dark horse CFP pick in the preseason. Neither of those things are necessarily out of the question at this point, but both are certainly harder to achieve.

The Cougars have won four in a row in the series, including a dramatic 28-24 victory over Utah in Pullman last season. That game turned out to be a battle of Pac-12 title contenders, something that wasn’t much predicted at the time.

Some, or maybe all, of the luster has come off this matchup, particularly nationally, after both teams dropped from the ranks of the undefeated this week. What may have been a Top-15 tussle is now ranked vs. unranked. Still, you gotta believe after last year’s tight game, this will be a battle.

It figures to be close, at least by Bill Connelly’s SP+. The Utes are ranked No. 22 after four weeks of the season. The Cougs are ranked No. 23. Let’s dig into the important players and trends for Utah vs. the Cougs in this interdivisional Pac-12 tilt.

When Utah has the ball...

The Utes headed to Pullman last season looking completely inept on offense. However, Utah put up 21 in the first half against the Cougs and that was the beginning of an offensive renaissance that has continued into the 2019 season, where the Utes are currently ranked 28th in SP+.

Much of the credit for Utah’s offensive improvement can be pinned on the development of quarterback Tyler Huntley. He was always able to move around and pick up yards on the ground, but previously he was erratic in the passing game. This season, not so much, as Huntley has completed 76 percent of his passes for 9.7 yards per attempt. He has thrown five touchdowns and no interceptions.

However, Huntley’s status for Saturday’s game is still up in the air. He was hobbled by an apparent foot injury against USC.

Huntley is not alone on the injured list, as very good and very difficult to tackle running back Zack Moss was seen in a sling on the sideline last weekend. Whittingham, much like Leach, is unwilling to give up the status of his two star offensive players (via The Salt Lake Tribune):

“We just hope everyone’s there,” Whittingham said. “Why would you ever tip your hand to the opponent? That would make no sense at all. And until college football has an injury-report rule or whatever, we just won’t do it.”

So we don’t really know if Huntley and Moss will play on Saturday, but the general consensus is that Huntley will play—he has even said as much—and Moss won’t. If either is out, that helps the WSU defense.

The Cougs struggled to bring Moss down last season, as did many Pac-12 teams. He’s been a workhorse in 2019, already carrying the ball 63 times for 393 yards and four touchdowns. That’s despite missing time during blowouts and due to injury.

Next in line should Moss miss the game is likely a by-committee approach, should previous carries be believed. Talented freshman Jordan Wilmore has carried the ball 18 times for 82 yards and sophomore Devin Brumfield has gone 16 for 87. One or both might be getting a bigger role come Saturday night.

We should also expect Huntley to pick up yardage on the ground. He’s gained 159 net yards thus far, and that makes him Utah’s second-leading rusher. He made some big plays in Pullman last year, and that is to be expected again.

When Huntley isn’t running, he’ll be throwing to a wide variety of receivers. Britain Covey leads the Utes with 10 catches, but six different players have caught between seven and 10 balls. The most explosive of those has been Bryan Thompson, who has seven catches for 199 yards and two scores. Tight end Brant Kuithe has logged nine catches for 163 yards and a touchdown.

Overall, Utah leans heavily towards the run, having rushed the ball almost twice as many times as it has passed. However, given that WSU may risk selling out to stop the run, we could see the Utes open it up and make some big plays through the air.

The loss of Moss, Huntley, or both could change this game dramatically. Huntley may be the more dangerous for WSU, because of his dual-threat ability, and he is the one that seems more likely to play.

However, if he is bothered by a foot injury that could limit his ability to make plays on the ground, that makes him more palatable for the Coug defenders.

Still, WSU is ranked 80th in defensive SP+ and just came off a game where it was exposed, particularly in the passing game. Utah is watching that tape too, and it is likely to find some holes in the Cougar defense. Expect the Utes to perform above average if Huntley is on the field, even if Moss is out.

When WSU has the ball...

The Utes have played three FBS offenses—BYU, Northern Illinois, and USC. By SP+. Those offenses rank 83rd, 113th, and 18th respectively. It should come as no surprise that Utah’s worst defensive performance of the season came against the Trojans. Where do the Cougs rank in that metric? Currently at No. 4. Utah’s defense sits at No. 34.

So while there may be this general feeling that Utah’s defense is overwhelmingly its strength, the reality is that the Ute defense is solid, but by no means elite. However, there are guys in the front seven that cause plenty of havoc.

In particular on the havoc front is senior defensive end Bradlee Anae, who has already tallied four sacks and five tackles-for-loss overall in 2019. Last season, he was all-conference as he logged 15.5 TFL and eight sacks. He will cause trouble, and he will be in the backfield.

Anae gets plenty of help from space-occupier Leki Fotu, who stands 6’5 and 335 pounds at defensive tackle. He’s also an all-conference player, and has 3.5 TFL so far this season. The combo of those two will be a particular challenge for WSU’s offensive line.

Devin Lloyd is a playmaker at outside linebacker. He leads the team in tackles with 31, and is second on the team in TFL with 4.5, two of which are sacks. On the backend, senior Julian Blackmon is Utah’s best corner and has seven career interceptions, including two this season.

On the topic of that backend, USC seemed to expose a weakness in Utah’s defense, as the Trojans Air Raided their way to 11.5 yards per pass behind third-string QB Matt Fink. A lot of that damage was done on the outside with 6’4 receiver Michael Pittman, Jr.

WSU has a talented group on the outside and a better quarterback in Anthony Gordon, so the expectation is that the Cougs can attack the Utes the same way, running the same core offense. Gordon is sixth nationally in yards per attempt at 10.3, so he certainly can exploit a defense for big plays.

Still, this is a step up in defense from what WSU has seen, and the crowd in Salt Lake will be loud and provide any sort of home field advantage a team would want. Gordon and company will see their biggest test. The key, as always, will be how well the Wazzu offensive line can protect against a very good defensive front.

The Bottom Line

All signs point to a close battle in Salt Lake. The WSU offense should be able to put up a reasonable amount of points against the Utes—in the 30s. The Utah offense should also be able to move on the Cougs and push its own score into the 30s. Both teams will be mad, and this will have a rivalry feel.

This could be a game that is decided by some weirdness—a turnover here, a missed kick there. In fact, SP+ predicts it be 34-32, so a few big plays can swing it. The home field may be enough to push the Utes to victory, but expect the Cougs to be there in the end with a chance to win.