Utah Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs Washington State Defensive Backs
Utah’s passing game against Michigan didn’t reach the heights they did in weeks 1 and 2, but it showed that Wilson has the ability to manage a game and keep from making mistakes. Travis picked up the first big road win of his career, and that should give him plenty of confidence going forward. The junior signal caller is third in the country in passing efficiency right now with 7 touchdowns and ZERO interceptions. The yardage numbers aren’t eye-popping, but that will happen when you’ve only played 7.5 quarters through three games due to blowouts.
The receiving game for Utah is looking more lethal than any time in the last decade. Expect Kaelin Clay to get more involved in the passing game as well. 3 catches for 26 yards isn’t the production most have expected (although he’s made up for it in the return game). Dres Anderson remains Utah’s biggest threat with 13 catches for 232 yards and 3 touchdowns. His 28 yarder last week showed what his speed can do in the open field. Kenneth Scott actually leads the team in catches with 14 to go along with 3 touchdowns and Tim Patrick looked like a viable option last week.
Washington State’s secondary is surprisingly pretty solid. They’re not great, but they’re not terrible either in giving up 247 yards per game. Sophomore Daquan Brown leads the team in tackles with 37 and pass breakups with 6, which is tied for the conference lead. He had an incredible 5 of them against Portland State. Opposite Brown is freshman Charleston White who enters Saturday’s game with 4 pass breakups and an interception. Neither is a big guy with both under 6 feet tall. The Cougars will also run out another freshman at the safety spot in Darius Lemora. Lemora is fourth on the team with 24 tackles and .5 TFLs. Junior Taylor Taliulu rounds out the group and has 14 career starts under his belt. The Cougars have been susceptible to the big play this year through the air yielding 14 plays of 20+ yards so far with many of those going for 30+.
Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Washington State Linebackers
Outside a few big plays by Davontae Booker and Bubba Poole, Utah's running backs and tight end Westlee Tonga, had a pretty quiet day at Michigan. Booker and Poole certainly contributed, but Tonga could have been listed as MIA against Michigan's extremely talented linebacking corps. Tonga certainly hasn't been a slouch the year with strong performances against ISU and FSU, but at Michigan, he was rarely seen or mentioned. He's too important to this offense to disappear like that.
Washington State runs a 3-4 defense and typically rotates in six linebackers through these four positions. This bunch of mostly upper classmen include a who's who of ultimate cowboy movie names like Kache Palacio (16 total tackles), Cyrus Coen (26), Darryl Monroe (31), Jeremiah Allison (19), Mitch Peterson (20) and Tana Pritchard (20). Run stopping isn't this groups forte. Through four games they have given up an average of 173 yards per game with Rutgers and Nevada running all over the Cougars for 200 plus yards and 6 rushing touchdowns. They are giving up a whooping 4 yards per carry and rank in bottom 25% in most Pac-12 defensive categories. So far Wazzu's opponents have 174 rushing attempts against the Cougars, a huge number compared to the rest of the conference. What does that tell you about what opponents think of this defense? Success against the 1-3 Cougars starts on the ground. It's worth mentioning that in Wazzu's only win, they were able to limit Portland St to just 73 rushing yards and rest assured, they will be focusing on trying to limit Booker and Poole who only combined for 77 yards against the Wolverines.
On paper, Utah's running backs and tight ends have the edge over Wazzu's linebacking corps, but we're still waiting to see a big performance from Utah's rushing attach. With bad weather in the forecast, Poole and Booker will have their chances against a less talented defensive front and linebacking group.
Utah Offensive Line vs Washington State Defensive Line
Last season Utah was able to rush for 134 yards against the WSU defense, but needed 35 rushing attempts to get there (3.8 YPC). The offensive line this season has been up and down with performance, but overall I think the unit is better this year. Not because of the lineman only, but the combination of Poole and Booker and a healthy Wilson trump Schulz, York and Utah playing on the road in Pullman last season.
You only need to look as far back as last week to know that the front line of Wazzu's DL is a force this season. Marcus Mariota was sacked seven time and the entire Ducks rushing game was bottled up for the vast majority of the game. Xavier Cooper is a monster and is at the top of the conference standings in sacks and TFLs. Washington State knows that Utah will try to establish the run with heavy doses of Poole and Booker, but they will counter with a big, tough defensive front creating opportunities for the linebackers to make plays.
Edge: Washington State
Washington State Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers vs Utah Defensive Backs
The marquee position groups for the Cougars are the receivers and QB, as close to their entire offense revolves around the two. Wazzu throws the ball more than any team in the country as they’re currently averaging 60 passing attempts per game, and understandably lead the nation in passing yards per game, with 496, 108 more than the next closest team. Connor Halliday is the Cougar QB and has been the starter for the past 3 seasons. Halliday’s reputation the past couple seasons has been that of a turnover machine, as his TD:INT ratio in ’13 & ’12 was a combined 1.4 to 1, which equated to an INT thrown every 28 attempts. They may not seem like a lot, but for a team that throws the ball anywhere between 50-80 times, you could pretty much count on Halliday throwing 2-3 INT’s every game. That’s the Connor Halliday of the past though, as through 4 games in 2014, he has significantly reduced the amount of INT’s thrown, as his TD:INT ration is now 3.2 to 1, and he’s now only throwing an INT every 48 attempts. Halliday has a quick release and thrives in an offense that relies on getting rid of the ball quickly, in order to reduce the amount of pressure on the QB. This is good for Halliday as he does have the tendency to try and force passes when pressured, but that’s a lot easier said than done against a quick pass offense. Halliday isn’t an elite quarterback, as he may not even be in the top half of the league when looking at quarterbacks, but he can do a lot of damage against a defense if you allow him to get in a rhythm.
By virtue of the offensive system, Washington State uses A LOT of receivers. They already have 7 players (one being a RB) with 10+ catches on the year, and will likely finish with 9 or 10. It’s hard to focus on just a couple of guys with how much they spread around the ball, but there are really 3 guys that the Utah defense should familiarize themselves with, Vince Mayle, Isaiah Myers and Dom Williams. Mayle and Myers are the two top receivers as they both have 32 catches on the season. Mayle (32 catches, 320 yards, 3 TD’s) is the big strong possession receiver that Wazzu likes to go to on 3rd down, but they’ll also his him on screens so his speed isn’t bad for somebody that’s 6’3-220lbs. Myers (32 catches, 451 yards, 5 TD’s)isn’t a true speedster either, but is more of a balanced receiver at 6’0-190lbs and is the go to guy for Connor Halliday. The Cougars biggest deep threat is Dom Williams (15 catches, 316 yards, 4 TD’s), who has terrific speed. Williams burned one of the best corners in College Football (Ifo Ekpre-Olomu) for two touchdowns last week, and is a dangerous weapon when guarded one on one. Other receivers to look at for are River Cracraft (23 catches, 278 yards, 3 TD’s), Rickey Galvin (15 catches, 177 yards, 2 TD’s) and Jamal Morrow (15 catches, 177 yards) out of the backfield. This is a talented, deep group of receivers that is likely a Top 5 position group in the PAC 12.
It’s been a big turnaround for the Ute secondary. After looking less than impressive in Week 1, and slightly better in Week 2, the defensive backs had a tremendous game against Michigan. Now Michigan doesn’t have the same caliber of quarterback that Wazzu has, but what they do have is one of the receivers in the country in Devin Funchess. Funchess wasn’t playing at 100% against the Utes, but the secondary did a more than admirable job against him, especially corner Eric Rowe, who had 3 PBU’s. Brian Blechen’s hit on Funchess over the middle really set the tone for the Ute secondary, and they finished the game with 10 PBU’s and 2 INT’s, one by Blechen and one by Tevin Carter. The corner back group looks especially improved from week one. Former receiver and now corner Dominique Hatfield has settled in very nicely at corner in what was his 2nd career start last week, and brings a confidence and swagger to that group that will only make them better. Nickel back Justin Thomas also has been very good thus far, and is establishing himself as one of the premier nickel backs in the conference. It was a good outing against the Wolverines for the secondary, but they’re going to face a much more difficult test this week as they’ll likely to see the ball thrown more than 3x the amount that it was by Michigan. We’ll find out exactly how good this position group is on Saturday.
Edge: Washington State
Washington State Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Utah Linebackers
Washington State does, believe it or not, have a running back on its roster. Despite being a pass heavy oriented offense, the Cougars run the ball sparingly to combat an overaggressive defense. Blitz too often and Connor Halliday will hand the ball off on a draw to either freshman running back Jamal Morrow or Gerard Wicks. The Cougars only have a combined 266 yards on the ground this season, so other than picking up a key 3rd and short or drawing up a play near the goalline, don’t expect much from their backfield. As far as tight ends go, the only time Wazzu uses anything that somewhat resembles a tight end is in an 7 man front package where two additional offensive linemen are subbed in to aid in the run game, Mike Leach’s version of a power run formation.
Anybody think Gionni Paul would dominate in his first game the way that he did for the Utes against Michigan? 14 tackles with an interception and a fumble recovery aided in an impressive defensive showcase in which the Utes held Michigan’s offense to just 3 points. Everyone is quick to credit Notre Dame for doing the nearly the same thing on its home field while discrediting Utah’s effort for doing it on the road. And speaking of dominating performance, Jared Norris might have been the best player on the field Saturday, showcasing closing speed at chasing down Devin Gardner.
Washington State Offensive Line vs Utah Defensive Line
Through 4 games the Cougars’ offensive line has given up only 9 sacks total, a pretty solid number considering how many times per game they pass. It’s a fairly inexperienced line with only 2 returning starters and 33 combined starts (least in the Pac 12) coming into the season. Left tackle Joe Dahl and left guard Gunnar Eklund hold down the left side of the line and are your two returners. Both are juniors and Eklund is a monster at 6-7, 305. Your three newcomers are center Riley Sorensen, right guard Eduardo Middleton, and right tackle Cole Madison. The entire line tips that scales at over 300 pounds each. They’re not that effective in the run game, but with Wazzu consistently airing it out, they don’t need to be. 45 yards per game isn’t a big concern for Washington State, but they should be a bit concerned by the 2.2 yards per carry number, although that can be skewed by a lack of run plays combined with a high number of passing plays where sacks count against your rushing total.
Utah’s defensive line is really rounding into form after a stellar performance against Michigan. They’re finding more playable depth inside with guys like Filipo Mokofisi, Clint Shepard, and Seni Fauonuku all showing strides over the past few weeks. Hunter Dimick has been as effective as any defender on D this season outside of Nate Orchard and is consistently in the backfield. Jason Fanaiak has improved each week while Pita Taumoepenu and Lowell Lotulelei add upside and needed depth. Utah leads the country in sacks per game right now and going against a team that may throw it 75 times, they have to be excited at the prospect of being able to tee off on Halliday. Oregon presented a bit of a pass rush last week, but Utah’s is better and should be able to make things difficult for the Washington State line and Halliday with their pressure.
Utah Special Teams vs Washington State Special Teams
Is there anything left to say about Utah’s special teams unit? They’re the best in the country. Period. Andy Phillips is a legit Lou Groza candidate and Tom Hackett is probably the early leader for the Ray Guy award. Kaelin Clay leads the country with three kick returns for touchdowns. The real stats that put this group over the top are the kick coverage teams. Only 4 punt return yards for opponents this season on three attempts. Andy Phillips isn’t letting anyone out of the end zone with the majority of his kickoffs ending up as touchbacks. When they do come out, Utah’s coverage team is holding returners to under 21 yards per return.
Kaelin Clay may have a tougher time returning kicks this week than in any game so far this season.
The kickoff coverage team finished last year tied for first in the in the conference last season and enters this week second in the conference while the punt coverage team is fourth in the league with a net average of 40.1 yards per pun.. Last season, Rickey Galvin has been solid in the return game as a punt returner and averaged 9.2 yards-per-return, including a 44-yard return against Portland State.
James Cella, Andrew Gorringe, Jayson Jones, Robert Jackson, and Brian Swinney contributed to this report.
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