Game Preview: Utah at Washington State

It's a must win for Utah with bowl hopes on the line

When Utah Has The Ball
With the devastating news of Travis Wilson's season and perhaps career coming to an abrupt end on Monday, all eyes will be squarely focused on former walk-on, now starting Pac-12 quarterback Adam Schulz.

Schulz is a natural quarterback with a huge arm and decent downfield accuracy which many of Utah's faithful saw on display during spring and fall scrimmages. While his passing accuracy was understandably off during his first career start at Oregon, with a few of them being thrown behind his receivers, Schulz did made several big throws that give you a glimpse into what he can do. The pressure of that game and atmosphere isn't a great measuring stick for what Adam can do and the potential he has at the position.

While Schulz has a good arm, he isn't isn't as athletic as Travis Wilson, however Adam can be crafty on the ground and make a few plays with his legs as we saw on a few occasions including his rushing touchdown against the Ducks. He will have to rush between 30 and 40 yards to keep the Wazzu defense honest, as the Utes will likely run a steady stream of run-option reads against the Cougars.

Adam Schulz will rely heavily on a Utah rushing game that has been plagued by inconsistency for much of the season as the Utes have struggled to find continuity at the position where rotations are the norm. Washington State's defensive front seven is prone to give up a lot of yards on the ground with a 4.5 yards/attempt average through 10 games (185 yards/game). With an average like that, both Bubba Poole and Lucky Radley should see a lot of attempts as WSU tends to focus more on taking away the pass than stopping the run. Both Poole and Radley are going to need to have better production than we they showed at Autzen as they both average 3 yards or less per carry.

The offense received a serious boost from the return of Jake Murphy to the line up. While he only had two catches against the Ducks, they were both critical plays and his presence on the field improves all aspects of the Ute's offense including the running game. It's no accident that the Utes passing game improved with him in the lineup. With Murphy on the field, the hope is that speedsters like Dominique Hatfield and Dres Anderson can finally find separation and get the big plays we saw earlier in the season. The good news for Utah is that Washington State's defense isn't that good. The Cougs rank near the bottom of every defensive statistic in the Pac-12 including 10th in total defense, rushing defense, passing defense and sacks.

The bad news is that Utah's offense hasn't been very good on the road and they've been abysmal over the past four games where they have average 278 yards of total offense and only scoring an average of 16.7 points per game in that stretch.

Washington State's defense might just be the perfect "slump buster" for the Ute's offense to get back on track.

WSU does boast the conference's best tackler in free safety Deone Bucannon who has tallied 96 takedowns including 64 solo tackles. However, if you're best tackler is a safety, what does that say about your defense? We do know that only 3.5 of his 96 tackles were tackles for loss for a total of minus five yards, so it's safe to say that Bucannon is getting most of his tackles after the play has extended past the line of scrimmage and likely once it's moved past the linebacker set. In short, a decent Pac-12 offense can move the ball on this team.

The Cougars play a very vanilla 4-3 defensive set with a traditional nickel package that is sometimes played on first downs. In their victory over Arizona, the Cougs rarely blitzed, nor disguised their scheme or overloaded pressure from one side or the other. The box was rarely loaded with more than five or six defenders either. They can be fooled on the read-option which Arizona State used to shred them in Pullman on Halloween if your remember. They opened up pretty soft against it in the first quarter against Arizona, but stiffened up a bit more as the game progressed. Utah's offensive line finally had a decent game last week against the Ducks where they gave were able to give Adam Schulz time in the pocket, a luxury Wilson wasn't afforded in his last three games. The Cougar defense isn't a sack happy group as they have only 17 all year and managed just one against the Wildcats. Utah's offensive line should be able to push this group back, and give Schulz time to complete passes to Utah receiver who must find a way to get open.

When Washington State Has the Ball
Here comes the air-raid. The high-flying offense that Mike Leach made famous at Texas Tech is now in Pullman, Washington and ready to get off of the ground. In your two of his tenure, Leach has the Cougars one win from bowl eligibility, largely due to an offense that throws the ball all over the field.

Quarterback Connor Halliday is a gun-slinger, averaging 342 yards per game through the air this season with 22 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions. It's a lot of short, quick routes from the Wazzu wide receivers, which could negate Utah's distinct advantage in rushing the passer. The Cougars' offensive line is average at best, but it doesn't need to be tremendous with Halliday in the shotgun, making three step drops, and getting the ball out. That will put a lot of pressure on Utah's corners, especially Keith McGill, who likely draws the assignment of Gabe Marks. Marks is a sensational receiver and leads the team in 63 catches on the year for 721 yards and 6 touchdowns. The Cougars have 10 players with 21 or more catches on the season. By comparison, Utah has only 4.

Washington State abandons the run for the most part with Leach and company preferring to air it out. They did run the ball 26 times last week against Arizona, which was a season high, but against a Utah front 7 that has been tremendous at stopping the run, the Cougars will likely head back to the air. Running backs Marcus Mason and Teondre Caldwell will be used to catch the ball out of the backfield though, accounting for 56 grabs.

When Washington State has the ball, it's really going to come down to the quarterback and receivers against the defensive backs. If the Utes can pick off a couple of passes to add to their grand total of 2 on the season, they should be able to waltz out of Pullman with a win.
Advantage: Utah

Utah Will Win If...
Cella- They can control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and if the Utah defense can generate two turnovers that lead to points.
Gorringe- They dial up consistent pressure on Halliday.
Karren- They can avoid the turnover bug and hold WSU below 300 pass yards. The Cougs don't run the ball very effectively and instead sling the ball around the field on just about every down. If Utah's secondary can hold up and keep their pass game in check while limiting the number of possessions WSU gets by not giving the ball away they'll walk away victorious.
Olson- The DB's have a good game and the DL can wreck WSU's offensive line
Swinney- They keep the turnover battle and even or better, run the ball for 150 yards or more, and don't make any special teams mistakes.

Predictions
Cella- Utah 24 Washington State 21
Gorringe- Utah 31 Washington State 20
Karren- Washington State 34 Utah 31
Olson- Utah 34 Washington State 31
Swinney-Utah 33 Washington State 27


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