Facts and Factors:
Utah (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12) faces off against Washington (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) in a cross-divisional conference game on Saturday October 1st. The game will be televised regionally on FSN (Root Sports in Utah) with kickoff scheduled for 5:00p.m. MT in Rice-Eccles Stadium on the campus of the University of Utah. Radio broadcast for the game will be available on ESPN700 AM or streamed online at espn700sports.com.
Utah and Washington have faced off against each other just six times in their history with the Huskies winning each game for a 6-0 series lead. The two teams have not played each other since 1979, and Washington has never played in Salt Lake City.
Saturday is Homecoming for the Utes, it's 91st in school history. This will be the first Homecoming game played against a Pac-12 school 1975 against Arizona State, although both Utah and ASU were members of the WAC at the time. Since Rice-Eccles Stadium opened in 1998 Utah is 8-5 in Homecoming games.
Under Head Coach Kyle Whittingham Utah is 6-0 coming off of bye weeks during the regular season. The Utes have won 10-straight games following byes dating back to 2003. Utah's last loss after a bye was on the road against San Diego State in 2002; their last home loss following a bye was in old Rice Stadium in 1996 against BYU.
Utah is currently tied for the national lead in fumbles recovered with 8 and is tied for sixth nationally in turnovers caused with 12. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in both of these categories. Their four team interceptions also leads the Pac-12.
Utah is tied for first in the Pac-12 and third nationally in red zone defense. The Utes are holding opponents to a 50% scoring rate when they enter the red zone, allowing scores on just three of six red zone visits this season. The Utes are currently second in the Pac-12 and 15th in the country in scoring defense averaging 14.3 points against per game. Utah ranks 3rd in the conference and 14th in the nation in rush defense giving up just 79.3 yards per game on the ground.
BYU's 11 net rushing yards is the seventh-lowest rushing total by a Utah opponent in school history and the fewest allowed by a Utah defense since 2002 when Michigan rushed for just 13 yards against the Utes. The Cougars were held to negative rushing yards in the first (-6), third (-5) and fourth (-2) quarters of last week's game.
When Utah Has the Ball
Jordan Wynn may not be a Heisman candidate but he does a lot of things right for the Utes. So far this season Wynn has only turned the ball over once, an interception off of a tipped ball in the last game against BYU. Wynn has a 4-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio through the first three games of the season. He started the year a little slow but has clearly progressed each week and enters the game against Washington with a level of confidence he didn't have when the season began. In the first game Wynn struggled to make his reads, often locking in on a single receiver or very quickly checking down to the tight ends. 10 of his 14 completions were to the tight ends for very short yardage. The next week against USC, his completions rose from 14 to 20 and his wide receivers this time were his primary targets. He clearly made an effort to look for bigger plays on the outside and it nearly paid off as the Utes came within a blocked field goal of forcing overtime in the Coliseum. Against BYU Wynn had a great mixture of short, medium, and long throws putting together his most complete game of the young season. In order for Wynn to continue his progress he'll need to stay committed to throwing balls to the outside and down the field. A mixture of passes to the wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs should do enough to keep the Washington secondary guessing and will give Wynn chances to make big plays throughout the game. Desmond Trufant may be able to limit Wynn's favorite target Devonte Christopher, but after Christopher Utah has a big advantage in the pass game for Wynn to exploit. He will have open receivers throughout the night, it's just on him to find them.
Running Back John White IV has certainly proven why he was chosen as the starter after a very tight battle throughout fall camp. White is currently second in the Pac-12 averaging over 120 yards per game behind only LaMichael James of Oregon. White is a very tough runner who seems to get stronger as games go along. Against BYU after being held to just 9 yards in the first half White broke loose for 165 in the second finishing with 174 yards and 3 touchdowns. He is a bit undersized but he is a strong runner who isn't afraid to run up the middle and take on linebackers. He'll face a tough linebacker corps on Saturday including Salt Lake City native Cort Dennison, so he'll need to keep up his tough running attitude. The Utah offensive line should be able handle the line of scrimmage so I expect White to constantly be up into the second level; anytime that's the case the running back usually has a very good day.
Utah's wide receivers, much like Jordan Wynn, are getting better as the season moves along. Utah has definite playmakers in DeVonte Christopher, Dres Anderson, and Reggie Dunn, and these guys will give the Washington secondary trouble. The receivers aren't good at just one thing, either. All three have great hands and breakaway speed making them threats every time they touch the ball. None are afraid to make a catch overvthe middle and drops haven't been an issue all year. The tight end group for Utah is solid as well. As mentioned earlier, Wynn is a smart quarterback who avoids mistakes and loves to take what is given to him. That usually means good things for the tight ends as Wynn often finds them underneath the defense as the receivers run deep behind them. The tight ends and receivers play off each other as each group does a good job of setting up the other. Washington struggles to defend the tight end passing game so look for that to be an area of success for the Utes. If Rogers, Moeai, and Murphy are have another good game Saturday I like Utah's chances to win.
Utah's offensive line continues to battle injuries. Right Tackle Tony Bergstrom suffered a sprained MCL against BYU and, although listed as questionable, likely won't play against the Huskies this weekend. The Ute line had been less than impressive in the first two games but really broke out against BYU. Wynn was given plenty of time to make reads and White, especially in the second half, was able to find holes and pick up yards on the ground. Washington's defensive line loves to battle against the run but is not as skilled as BYU's. Across the front there isn't a member of the Husky line that should be able to outperform their Ute counterpart. Although defensive tackles Alameda Ta'amu and Sione Potoae are good at stopping the run, their lack of pass rush ability should allow Wynn plenty of time to make decisions in the pocket. If the positive momentum gained in the win against BYU can be maintained then this unit should have another great day on Saturday.
When Washington Has the Ball
Keith Price is better than NFL first-round draft pick and former Husky Jake Locker. And he's only a sophomore. Price currently leads the NCAA with 14 touchdown passes and shows no signs of slowing down. While he has the ability to leave the pocket and scramble, Price prefers to stay inside and make throws downfield. His athleticism gives him the ability to extend a play by avoiding pressure without forcing him to tuck the ball and run. He has a very strong arm and pinpoint accuracy which makes him, if possible, even more dangerous. The Utah corners are going to have to do a very good job of playing man-to-man defense against a talented group of receivers. The biggest problem they'll face will be the length of time they'll likely be forced to cover the receivers on each play. If Utah's defensive line can't force pressure on Price and they let him escape the pocket or extend plays coverage will likely break down resulting in big plays. The safeties and corners are going to have to play together in order to limit the number of big plays that happen as a result of the play at quarterback.
Utah's defensive line had a stellar game against BYU forcing turnovers, scoring touchdowns and stuffing the run game all night long. They dominated the line of scrimmage against the run and often found their way into the backfield on passing downs. Derrick Shelby will once again have an advantage on the outside. His speed should be a major factor in this game as he faces off against a much younger and inexperienced left tackle. Joe Kruger gets the toughest matchup of the night and may be neutralized by the best player on the Husky OLine, but his height is a factor that can never be ignored. His hands will be up in passing lanes where he may be able to make some plays as Price loves to throw short to his running backs and tight ends. Kruger may not show up in the sack column, but he can still have an impact in this game. Star Lotulelei and Dave Kruger are good enough to control the middle of the field and neither will face a lineman that would be considered better than them. They'll have to take advantage of their skills and make plays in the run game in order to help out the rest of the defense.
The Utah linebackers may have the most difficult job of the night. Not only are they facing a great quarterback who is mobile and loves to throw short to tight ends and running backs looking for mismatches on pass routes, but Washington has one of the best young tight ends in the nation in Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Jenkins caught two touchdowns last week against Cal and has really made a name for himself as a true freshman. Add to that Chris Polk, one of the Pac-12's best running backs, and the linebackers are faced with a very difficult task: Stop the run while containing the quarterback and covering the superb tight end passing game. If Washington is going to win it will start with the play of the Utah linebackers. Blechen will matchup with Jenkins for most of the night likely playing a hybrid linebacker/safety position. Blechen's athleticism should allow him to keep up with Jenkins and keeping a body on him all afternoon will force Price to look elsewhere. This will put extra pressure on the Utah DLine and remaining linebackers to contain Price and Polk in order to keep the pressure off of the corners on the outside.
Nick Marsh and Coleman Peterson battled each other throughout fall camp and neither dominated the competition. Whittingham gave the job to Peterson the week of the opener and looked to have made the right decision as Peterson made both field goal attempts in the opener, both from distance. Against USC the very next week Peterson had his only attempt of the night blocked, the kick that could have forced overtime. Week three saw Peterson miss a 29 yard field goal and an extra point and suddenly a position that seemed solid is now up in the air. Peterson will likely remain at kicker but his accuracy still needs work before he can be counted on in close-game situations.
At Punter Sean Sellwood has struggled to find consistency much like he did last season. Against USC and BYU both Sellwood and Marsh split time at punter and I would expect much of the same on Saturday.
Returning kicks for Utah will once again be Reggie Dunn and Ryan Lacy. Reggie Dunn has breakaway speed that make him dangerous every time he touches the ball. He sees the field well on returns and typically sets the Utes up with good field position. Griff McNabb seems to have nailed down the punt return duties. Though he isn't the biggest guy on the field, he's not afraid to stand in there and field a punt and has the speed and lateral quickness to make a few guys miss if he's given a chance to make a return.
Utah's kickoff team has done an excellent job all season keeping the return game in check. They'll face a special teams unit from Washington who loves to take chances on returns and will need to continue to cover the field well on both kickoffs and punts.
Saturday's game will be the first Pac-12 game ever played in Rice-Eccles Stadium. This week the City of Salt Lake has hosted the ‘Red Movement' which called on local businesses to show their support for the University of Utah and this weekend's game by hosting a number of pep-rally-type events and city-wide advertising for the Utes and the Pac-12. This has increased the excitement level among Utah fans almost to an all-time high. The game was officially announced a sell-out on Wednesday, the 8th consecutive sellout at Rice-Eccles, and should be a very loud and excited crowd. If Utah takes a lead early, or if it's a close game, the atmosphere at Rice-Eccles could play a factor in the outcome of the game.
Other than the offensive line Utah enters the game pretty healthy. The knee injury to Tony Bergstrom, arguably the Utes best lineman, certainly hurts the offense but due to minor injuries throughout the season so far Utah has players with experience who can step in and play well. Washington has suffered injuries on both sides of the ball, but the defense has taken it particularly hard. Hau'oli Jamora, Washington's best defensive end, was lost last week for the remainder of the season, while fluke injuries and concussions have slowed the linebackers and secondary weakening an already below-average group.
Coaching offers a very interesting dynamic to this game that could very well prove to be the difference-maker. Steve Sarkisian inherited a winless Washington team a few years ago and has since rebuilt a program that is now very respected in the conference. His staff is young, smart, and not afraid to take chances on offense. The coaching matchup to watch in this game will be Sarkisian vs Utah Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow. These two coached together at USC early in the decade and Sarkisian learned much of what he knows now from Chow. Sark left USC for the NFL in 2004, Chow in '05, but the two have coached against each other both in the NFL and in the Pac-12 almost every year since. The great offensive minds will once again have a chance to duel on the field this Saturday.
The excitement level surrounding this game is extremely high. A sold-out crowd awaits the Washington Huskies, a team that has never played a game in Salt Lake City, in a stadium that is known for its rowdy crowds, its wild student section, and its home field advantage. Utah has been very good at home recently and the players will likely match the fans excitement level when kickoff rolls around.
Jordan Wynn must continue his game-to-game progression if he wants to set his team up for a win. He needs to play like he did against BYU, not hesitating to throw the ball to his wide receivers on the outside and down the field. If the Utah wideouts can soften up the defense it should create some room underneath for John White in the ground game. Based on his matchup on the outside I expect Dres Anderson to have another breakout game.
Washington's offense poses a major problem for Utah's defense. While they've been very good to this point in the season, Utah hasn't yet faced an offense with the same type of weapons the Huskies have. If you focus too much on Keith Price, Chris Polk will kill you. Focus too much on Polk, Price will pick you apart. Jermaine Kearse on the outside and Seferian-Jenkins at tight end offer a passing threat that is very difficult to match up against. Utah will have to be very good at corner as their defensive backs will likely be left on islands most of the night. This will free up extra bodies underneath to try and deal with Price, Polk, and Jenkins. Whether or not Utah can stop all of these weapons is ultimately what will dictate who wins this game.
If Wynn picks up where he left off against BYU, and Keith Price and the Washington weapons cause the type of matchup problems I expect them to create, then I'd expect a lot of points to be scored by both teams. The deciding factor in this one will be the skill of the Utah defense. They may give up points early on, but ultimately I expect them to make the plays they need to at the end of the game in order to preserve a close Utah win.
Utah 30 Washington 27
Washington at Utah - Game Preview
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