Utah 101: Cougs bowling for Utes

THERE LIKELY EXIST few teams more disappointed about their season than Utah. Despite impressive wins against Stanford and BYU, narrow losses against UCLA, Arizona State and Oregon State have them at the bottom of the Pac-12 South. They're 4-6, but could easily be 7-3. And while the Utes have played outstanding ball at home, they've struggled on the road. And the WSU-Utah matchup is in Pullman.

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Utah is 0-3 outside of the state of Utah this season, having been outscored 98-48 in the process.

Injuries are also now compounding Utah's problems. They find themselves turning to a one-time walk on quarterback who will make his second career start Saturday in Pullman, trying to keep alive Utah's fading hopes of earning a bowl bid.

Cougars (5-5) vs Utes (4-6)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
12:30 pm Pacific Time

WHERE:
Martin Stadium (33,522)

TELEVISION:
Pac-12 Networks

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
WSU by 1.5

LAST MEETING:
2012, WSU lost 49-6.

THE SERIES:
WSU is 5-7 in the series.

CF.C PREDICTION:
Cougs 24, Utah 21

THE UTES ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
Adam Schulz, QB: With Travis Wilson lost for the year, Utah has placed its hopes in the third-year sophomore. In limited action, he has 428 passing yards and two touchdowns, but his 46.7 percent completion percentage and two interceptions leave him with plenty to prove. He is much smaller (6-1, 205) than the 6-7, 240-pound Wilson and lacks his kind of mobility. But he has shown some heady play at times and has a surprisingly strong arm. Schulz saw his first action in mop-up duty against WSU last year, completing two throws for 52 yards.

Bubba Poole & Lucky Radley, RBs: The passing game wasn't exactly lighting it up before Wilson got hurt, so even more of the offense figures to fall on the running backs' shoulders now. Expect Poole and Radley to get a ton of carries in an effort to control the clock and shorten the game. The two running backs have combined for 1,163 hashes of total offense (978 rushing) and five touchdowns. Kelvin York is Utah's bruiser back, but he is questionable with an undisclosed injury.

Dres Anderson, WR: Son of UCLA's Willie "Flipper" Anderson, Dres is Utah's biggest receiving threat. Anderson has 779 receiving yards and six touchdowns this season. He will do his best to threaten the Cougar secondary, but the running game should be the Cougs' primary concern.

Overview
The addition of co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson has not improved this offense, thought Erickson insists Utah is "close." Some fans have been displeased with his conservative playcalling and earlier complained about a regression in Travis Wilson's play this season. The Utes have averaged just 16.3 points their last seven games and will face the Cougar D without their best player in Wilson. They still have their o-line to fall back on however, an enormous group averaging 322 pounds.

Strategy
This should be a similar story to last week, only the Cougars are playing at home and they won't have to face Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey. The Utes will show spread formations, but run defense should be the Cougars' primary concern. When Wilson was in, he was a huge threat to bust a team with the zone-read option at any time. Schultz will still run some of that but doesn't have Wilson's speed and will hand off more than Wilson did. The key here is also the same as last week – play assignment defense and keep the eyes where they should be.

Key Statistic
Touchdown-to-Interception Ratio: Utah can sympathize with WSU's turnover problems. Utah passers have thrown 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions this season.

THE UTES ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
Trevor Reilly, DE: A very good blend of speed and size, he leads the team in tackles (83), tackles for loss (15) and sacks (8.5). Ranks second in the conference in sacks and will be coming at Connor Halliday from his blind side.

Nate Orchard, DE: Reilly's counterpart on the left side. Played wide receiver in high school and brings tremendous speed with his now bulked up 255 pound frame.

Overview
Utah's defense is clearly the strength of the team. They held a potent ASU offense to just 20 points two weeks ago in a game Utah, frankly, should have won. Utah still says their base is a 4-3 but that's not the reality on Saturdays, they mostly run a base nickel secondary anchored around an outstanding defensive line that leads the nation in sacks and has held opponents to just 3.3 yards per rush attempt. Fans have seen a 4-2-5, 4-3, 3-4 and a 5-3 this season. And even though they run a lot of nickel, it isn't because they're playing to their strengths there. Indeed, Utah is lacking in the secondary. The Utes have managed just two interceptions this season and their pass efficiency defense ranks just 83rd.

Strategy
Once again, the Cougars should change little of the game plan that was so successful last week. Utah will be protective of its secondary and will try to attack Halliday before he has time to throw. The defensive line is very fast and will do everything possible to force turnovers. From my chair, WSU should take the pressure off Halliday by running the ball with regularity. Swing passes and bubble screens could also be effective and will help to wear the defensive linemen down. Utah's ends are outstanding but their speed can be used against them. Their tendency is to swing wide and surge quickly upfield – and that renders them susceptible to big holes on draw plays and in the quick passing lanes WSU likes to exploit under Mike Leach.

Key Statistic
Sacks per game: 3.6. How's this for putting Cougar Nation on alert -- Utah leads the nation in sacks. When teams have consistently gotten to Halliday this season, the Cougar offense has imploded. He will need to operate quickly, efficiently and when things go wrong, he and the Cougar offense cannot let it weigh them down. Utah is going to make plays on defense, they are going to win some series -- and they're more likely to do their best work early. It figures to be key how the WSU offense responds to any potential adversity.

THE UTES ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Utah has a freshman kicker in Andy Phillips but he has handled the job well making 15-of-18 attempts, although he as only attempted one kick longer than 48 yards.

FINAL THOUGHTS
-Utah looks to be emotionally hanging by a thread as the losses have piled up, but they are still well-coached. They got within three points of Oregon in the third quarter before the Ducks took control.

  • That said, Utah seemingly lacks the personnel to stage a comeback at this point. Plus, their emotional reserves may be about to run dry given how the losses have piled up since their win over Stanford, which must feel like it happened in another lifetime to the Utes. They will be determined to keep the game close but if the Cougs can get up by a good amount early, Utah could begin to lose the fine edge.

  • The Utes in Week 11 are built to protect a lead, not regain it. But given WSU has scored 24 or fewer points in three of their last four games, the script may call for one of these teams pulling slowly away in the second half.

  • "We need a pass rush, get our hands on the ball at the line of scrimmage or get knockdowns," Whittingham told the Salt Lake Tribune yesterday on what he wants from his front seven against WSU. "More times than not, you don't get there for sacks, but you can still be disruptive with the pass rush and deflect some balls and that type of thing."

  • Both of the backfields in this game leave much to be desired in the run game and/or rushing attempts, but the Utes can still dominate the line of scrimmage with their o-line. The Cougar d-line and front seven will need to come to play.

  • The co-offensive coordinator system has been a mess for Utah. A critic might say the 26-year old Brian Johnson has looked too young, and the 66-year old Dennis Erickson has looked too old. I think Whittingham was looking for some fresh ideas, but Erickson looks out of sync trying to run a more deliberate ball-control styled offense and the injuries have cut deep for Utah in 2013. The Utes are likely to struggle to score more than 20 points without the help of turnovers.

  • WSU is so close to their postseason goal. Expect the energy level to be high, both on the field and in the stands. If Halliday can play like he did last week, and keep his emotions in check, the Cougs should avenge an embarrassing loss Utah last season. The Utes are still a solid football team and particularly on defense, one that does not resemble their 4-6 record. But they have simply been unable to deliver the same level of execution on the road in 2013.

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