The Washington State Cougars will probably play a game against the Utah Utes on Saturday morning in Salt Lake City (10:30 am PT, FS1). Whichever team wins will come away with bowl eligibility, but both squads have had enough of this weird season, so this is the finale for the Cougs and Utes.
As always, caveats abound in these previews because the game could just be canceled less than two hours before it happens, and this season has been so weird that it’s hard to get a read on the true quality of teams.
That being said, Utah looks like a pretty good football team. Let’s dig into the players and trends that will impact Wazzu vs. U of U.
When Utah has the ball...
The Utes are gonna run the dang ball. Utah has run 147 non-sack times vs. 123 dropbacks (passes + sacks). This preference for running, and doing it effectively, has kept Utah football games short and limited the number of plays the opposing offense is on the field.
The Utes are successful on nearly 43 percent of running plays (that’s solid), which has helped them be successful on almost 49 percent of standard downs. That keeps Utah on schedule, leading to solid third-down conversion rates.
Freshman Ty Jordan has been the best offensive weapon for Kyle Whittingham, tallying 443 yards and three touchdowns on just 61 carries. Quarterback Jake Bentley is also a threat with his legs, particularly on passing downs where he obnoxiously picks up first downs in scramble mode.
Bentley’s passing has been subpar—just 6.6 yards per attempt with five touchdowns and five picks. However, Utah’s offense doesn’t ask him to do too much, and that has helped it reach a 48 percent success rate on passes. When he does pass, it’s most often to tight end Brant Kuithe (19 catches for 175 yards) or receiver Britain Covey (13 catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns). Bentley will spread it around a bit too, and expect running backs to be involved.
How does WSU’s defense matchup against Utah’s run-focused offense? Well, it’s not looking great. The Cougs have given up a stunningly bad 55.9 percent success rate on rushes, contributing to a 61.5 percent success rate against on standard downs. Passing hasn’t been much better, where the Cougs allow successful passes on 52.3 percent of dropbacks.*
*A reminder that success rate is measured as a play with expected points added (EPA) greater than 0, but just think of it as a play that keeps the team on schedule at a minimum.
Surprisingly, Wazzu has been fine in defending passing downs (33.3 success rate). Much of that is owed to the pass rush, and the Cougs are fifth in the conference in front-seven havoc rate (percentage of plays with sacks, fumbles, or tackles-for-loss). Unfortunately, because of WSU’s inability to stop teams on the ground or on standard downs in general, opposing offenses just don’t face that many passing downs.
The one hope is that WSU’s run defense did hold up well against USC's defense. Whether that was real, or a mirage against an Air Raid running attack, we shall certainly see against Utah. If the Coug defense is to have any chance, they are going to need to create havoc plays in early downs, and force Bentley to beat them through the air (while watching out for his scrambles).
When WSU has the ball...
Surprise, surprise: Utah has a good defense again. The Utes stifled the Cougs last year in Salt Lake City, and they have been shutting teams down again this season. Whittingham’s defense is allowing less than 37 percent of opposing offensive plays to be successful. That’s like an entire solar system’s worth of distance from what WSU’s defense is doing.
Utah is an equal opportunity stopper when it comes to passing and running. The Utes are giving up a 37.1 percent success rate on passes and 36.1 on runs. They can be somewhat susceptible on standard downs, where teams have been successful 44.2 percent of the time.
Finding positive plays on early downs will be essential for the Cougs because the Utes have been downright stingy on passing downs—giving up successful plays just about a quarter of the time.
One thing that does work in WSU’s favor is that it has kept negative plays down on offense, with the second-lowest rate of havoc plays in the conference (interceptions, fumbles, sacks, TFLs, pass breakups). Utah hasn’t been particularly good at forcing havoc, so if the Cougs can take care of the ball and avoid mistakes, there is potential to move on this stout Utes defense.
The Cougs have been good on standard downs—successful on almost 51 percent. Staying on schedule would be huge, and hopefully, the return of Max Borghi can help that.
Big plays would also be massive, as Utah can grind teams down if they try to move slowly. Over the years, it seems that Utah safeties will take shallow angles on deep balls, often hoping to make a big play. Perhaps WSU can exploit that with its frequent and persistent vertical routes, and find some chunks in the passing game.
After USC took the vertical routes completely away from the Cougs, it will be interesting to see if Utah does the same, knowing it could be a game-changer for Wazzu.
The Bottom Line
Utah is boring but good. In a normal season, they’d have the potential for 9 or 10 wins. Instead, here they are going for their third victory after a slow start that was due at least in some part to COVID-19 related absences.
The Utes will probably come up with some big drives that come almost exclusively on the ground. There may be a time or two where WSU finally gets them in a third and long, only to have it unraveled by a Bentley scramble. The Coug defense will need to increase their odds of success by being tough against the run, and maybe taking some chances to get negative plays.
After a tough outing against USC, WSU is playing an even tougher defense this time. Quarterback Jayden de Laura will need to be more composed, and be efficient on his short throws if the Utes are taking away the vertical routes. Still, he needs to be ready to let it fly if a Utah safety is out of position and the opportunity arises. Some effective runs by Borghi and Deon McIntosh can go a long way, but again, Utah will make that tough.
Expect a grinder, and a relatively short game (the deluge of FS1 commercial breaks notwithstanding). The Cougs will need to capitalize on any successful drives because they just won’t get many drives total. That also means on the other side, any sort of defensive stop carries extra weight.
It’ll probably take a handful of breaks in WSU’s favor to end the season on a winning note, but it’s hard to predict anything this year, so who knows what can happen?