The Washington State Cougars visit Salt Lake City to face the Utah Utes in Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday (11:30 am PT, Pac-12 Network). The Cougars have lost two straight to the Utes, with both those games being played in Utah. This marks the third consecutive season that the Utes host the Cougs, a scheduling quirk harkening back to the days of the eight-game schedule in the Pac-10.
Those last Utah two wins have evened the all-time series between the schools after a four-game WSU winning streak had swung the series in the Cougs’ favor. Last season, the Cougs stormed out to a 28-7 first-half lead before giving up 38 consecutive points to end the game, a trend that has become all too common recently.
Can the Cougs buck a few trends and take down the Utes on the road? Let’s look at what might impact WSU vs. Utah. You can also listen to an audio preview, which focuses more on the Cougs, in the latest Podcast vs. Everyone episode below:
When Utah has the ball...
The big news out of Utah this week is the departure of quarterback Charlie Brewer from the program. Brewer had seemingly been supplanted as the starter by Cameron Rising. The rising sophomore came in to throw three touchdowns against San Diego State, helping to close a late deficit and force overtime.
Rising’s four touchdowns to no interceptions this season look good but his 5.4 yards per attempt (YPA) don’t. Utah is typically looking for big plays out of its passing game, and its starting QBs are often at the very least over 7.0 YPA. Brewer wasn’t doing much better at 6.1 YPA, and that was buoyed by 8.6 YPA against Weber State. With the QBs struggling to push the ball downfield, Utah ranks 100th in EPA/Pass (a measure of explosiveness from cfb-graphs).
Utah has some big targets that could give WSU trouble. Tight end Brant Kuithe (6’2, 230) and wide receiver Solomon Enis (6’3, 207) are the Utes’ top pass-catchers by yardage. Britain Covey is tied with Kuithe for the team lead in catches (13) but has only amassed 66 receiving yards on his opportunities. Look for him to be worked in screens and underneath routes.
One thing Rising has done well is pick up yardage on the ground. He rushed for 46 net yards against San Diego State, so that should trigger any WSU fan’s mobile quarterback fear center.
When Rising isn’t dropping back or carrying the ball himself, he’ll most often hand off to Micah Bernard. The freshman had a breakout game against BYU, logging 12 carries for 146 yards. He followed that up with just 47 yards on 17 carries against San Diego State. Much of his success against BYU came on three separate long runs, so he has the potential for explosiveness.
EPA doesn’t think much of Utah’s explosiveness in the run game, though, as the Utes rank 103rd in EPA/rush. Still, the potential is there for Bernard.
Overall, the Utes have struggled on offense when facing FBS opponents. Utah is 95th in success rate, recording successful plays on just 37 percent of snaps—think of a successful play as something that keeps a team ahead of the chains (i.e. five yards or more on first down, converting on third or fourth down). The Utes rank 106th in EPA/play. Combine that with the success rate and they have been neither explosive nor consistent.
Will the Coug defense help the Utah offense get right or the other way around? WSU is 113th in EPA/pass allowed, and 99th in EPA/play allowed while ranking 95th in defensive success rate, allowing successful plays on 45 percent of snaps.
The saving grace, should it continue, for the Cougs? A solid EPA/rush allowed, where they rank 38th. Wazzu stopped six USC runs behind the line of scrimmage, and USC running backs gained just 25 yards total on 13 carries.
Utah typically likes to build off its rushing attack. If WSU can hold down its running backs, that gives the Cougs a fighting chance to limit a Utah offense that has struggled in the passing game. Still, they need to be aware of Rising’s ability to move. And of course, there’s always the question: Will they wear down in the second half and start giving up big plays?
When WSU has the ball...
It’s a full quarter of the way into the season, and WSU’s offensive ability is still a mystery. Part of that has been the rotation at quarterback, and it looks like Jayden de Laura won’t be playing against the Utes, barring some quick turnaround. That leaves Jarret Guarantano, who didn’t impress in the opener against Utah State, and Cammon Cooper, who flashed a few things in garbage time against USC before ultimately succumbing to his Achilles heel—the interception.
Whether it is Guarantano or Cooper, the Cougs will be facing a tough Utah pass defense. The Utes haven’t been big on pressure, tallying just four sacks in three games, but they have made life difficult on the back end. Opposing QBs are averaging just under 5.0 YPA, and Utah ranks 9th nationally in EPA/pass allowed.
The Utes don’t gamble, they keep everything in front and cover well. At its best, the Run and Shoot gets vertical in the passing game for big plays. That will be difficult to accomplish against Utah.
Running on the Utes could be more of a feast-or-famine endeavor. Utah has stopped 13 runs behind the line of scrimmage in its last two games against FBS opponents. It’s also prone to big plays, ranking 70th in EPA/rush. WSU has been discouraged from the run game early, particularly against Utah State, but sticking with it might yield fruitful results when compared to what is expected against Utah’s pass defense.
Thanks to its elite pass defense, Utah ranks well overall in EPA allowed—27th nationally. From a success rate perspective, the Utes are middle of the road, having allowed successful plays 40% of the time. Avoiding obvious passing downs will be key against Utah, meaning early-down runs and short passes need to pick up nice chunks.
The Bottom Line
If WSU is going to have a chance against Utah, it needs to limit big plays on defense. Utah’s offense hasn’t possessed the ability to consistently stay ahead of the chains, so keeping things in front will be even more beneficial. Limiting Rising on scrambles will also help stop drives from getting going.
On offense, WSU isn’t likely to hit many big plays deep. That means WSU’s receivers will need to make defenders miss and pick up extra yards where available. The Cougar rushing attack needs to gain five or more yards consistently, and avoid being trapped in the backfield. The occasional burst into the secondary from Max Borghi or Deon McIntosh is also the easiest route to breaking the top off Utah’s defense.
Finally, the Cougs need to play more than one competent half of football, or they need to build a massive lead, as big as 39 points, to feel safe.