The Early Glimpse: Cougs vs. Utes

PERHAPS YOU DIDN’T notice during the course of Saturday’s 38-31 loss to No. 2 Oregon, because it was subtle, but it seemed Washington State was trying to run the ball against the Ducks’ defense.

The number of carries suggest otherwise, as the Cougars had only 17, versus 63 pass attempts. But the runs often came during key times of drives, rather than just after-thought type attempts. Now, we know Mike Leach is a coach who is never going to get behind a big running game. His running game is based on short passes to running backs and slot receivers.

But I paid attention to the running game Saturday night after hearing what former Husky QB turned analyst Brock Huard said last week on a Portland radio station. Huard was talking Pacific-12 football with two Portland sports talk show co-hosts when the topic turned to Leach.

“Are you guys at all concerned about Mike Leach? Because I am, a little bit. I think he’s getting really hard and set in his ways, not diversifying their game at all. His one-dimensional ways, I don’t know how effective that can be in today’s game,” Huard said.

Huard went on to say that “I know they’re No. 1 in the country, throwing for over 500 yards. But I get the feeling talking to different coaches around the country, (that) everybody else adapts a little bit and at least diversifies their run game or at least adds different components. He just won’t. He is just steadfast that he’s going to throw for more yards and than anybody.

“Which is great on the stat sheet. But when you don’t play defense and don’t run the ball, to think you’re going to throw well … and still be effective in this conference?”

It’s a fair point. The Pacific-12 is a decidedly better conference than the Big 12 of Leach’s Texas Tech days. The Big 12 had Texas and Oklahoma and lot of nobodies. Oklahoma State hadn’t hit its stride yet, and Baylor was still years away from being relevant. Texas A&M was occasionally successful. The Pac-12, meanwhile, might be the best conference in America. It certainly has better coaches top to bottom than the Big 12 of a decade ago, and has seen every passing game known to man.

Statistically, Leach is running less at Washington State than Texas Tech, not more. During six of his 10 seasons at Tech, Leach’s teams ran at least 300 times. The Cougars ran 252 times in 2012, and 243 last season. This year, WSU has 72 carries, which over a 12-game season would come to 216 carries. That would be a career low for Leach.

Cougs vs. Utes


The kickoff: 5 p.m. Saturday, Rice-Eccles Stadium.

TV: Pac-12 Network

The line: Utes by 10 1/2

The series: Utah leads 7-6


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About Utah: UCLA, USC and Arizona State are prominent mentions to win the Pac-12 South, but never Utah. Why not the Utes, particularly since the Bruins, Trojans and Sun Devils all have proven flaws?

Perhaps Utah doesn’t leap off the page with its tradition or lack of a Heisman-type quarterback, but it’s hard not to be impressed with what the Utes have done this season. Utah has wins over Idaho State, Fresno State and Michigan, the latter a 26-10 beatdown in the Big House.

Utah is doing it with a balanced offense and sound defense. Statistically, Utah is averaging 274.7 passing yards a game (No. 37 nationally) and 192.3 rushing yards (No. 44), while the Utes defense is giving up 327.7 yards a game (No. 29). In terms of Washington State, the most important stat is pass defense. The Utes rank No. 21 nationally in pass efficiency defense, and are yielding 210.3 passing yards per game.

If there’s a reason not to like Utah as the Pac-12 South winner, it’s Utes schedule, not the team itself. Utah’s crossover into the Pac-12 North is difficult, as the Utes face Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford, probably the three best North teams.

Among Pac-12 feel-good stories this season, there is Utah quarterback Travis Wilson. Thought that his career might be finished in 2013 because of head injuries, Wilson has bounced back this season, completing 38 of 58 passes for 622 yards and seven interceptions, with no interceptions. The 6-foot-7 Wilson is also a run threat, but he may curtail that a bit after a near-miss in a horrifying tackle at Michigan.

The Utes running game is by committee. One-time WSU signee Devontae Booker leads the Utes with 31 carries for 179 yards, but Bubba Poole is right behind (28 carries, 136 yards). Wilson, Kendal Thompson and Troy McCormick also have more than 20 carries this season. The receiving corps are led by Kenneth Scott (14 for 155, 3 TDs) and Dres Anderson (13 for 252, 3 TDs).

Defensively, watch out for defensive ends Nate Orchard (21 tackles, 4½ sacks) and Dimick Hunter (2½ sacks) and linebacker Jared Norris (23 tackles, four for losses)

The series: Last year Washington State clinched a bowl berth with a 49-37 win over Utah in Pullman. Connor Halliday threw for 488 yards and four touchdowns, including a pair to Dom Williams. The Cougars blitzed Utah at the outset, scoring three touchdowns during the game’s first 10 minutes for a 21-0 lead. But it got dicey toward the finish, as Utah closed to within six points before a 71-yard touchdown pass from Halliday to Williams with 4:42 left put the game away.

The Utah-WSU series resumed in 2011 when the Utes joined the Pac-12. Prior to that, the last time the two teams played was 2000. The two schools have also played in a bowl game; in the 1992 Copper Bowl, the Cougars beat the Utes 31-28.

Familiar faces: The lone Washingtonian on Utah’s roster is reserve quarterback Jason Thompson of Renton. Among coaches, there’s a very familiar WSU name in running backs coach Dennis Erickson, a former Cougars head coach. Also on the staff is wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield, who grew up in Yakima.

Notable stat: Seven of the past eight games between Washington and Utah have produced at least 55 points.

Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel


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