Utah 101: Pressure is on for Cougs and Utes

UTAH (3-0) PUT ON a dominant defensive performance against Michigan last week, and expectations are now firmly at the sky high level in Salt Lake City. If WSU can gather itself after a disappointing finish last week they, rather than the other way around, could be well positioned to catch Utah in a letdown game. Connor Halliday will need to be sharp, though. Utah is never subdued easily at home.

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Cougars (1-3) vs Utes (3-0)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
5:00 pm Pacific Time

WHERE:
Rice-Eccles Stadium (45,017)

TELEVISION:
Pac-12 Networks

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

THE LINE:
Utah by 13

LAST MEETING:
2013 WSU won 49-37

THE SERIES:
WSU is 6-7 in the series.

CF.C PREDICTION:
Cougs 35, Utes 27

THE UTES ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
Travis Wilson, QB: It is rare for taller quarterbacks to possess much mobility, but the 6-7 Wilson is as fast as he is tall. He was a bit of an interception machine last year, but has yet to throw a pick in 2014. After a neck injury nearly ended his career in 2013, Wilson is doing a better job delegating the workload this season.

Bubba Poole and Devonte Booker, RBs: Poole was Utah's leading rusher last year, and primary workhorse. Booker is JC transfer (originally signed with WSU) and currently leads the team with 179 rushing yards and a 5.8 per carry average.

Dres Anderson, WR: Anderson is one of the better deep threats in the country and a perfect complement to Utah's play action pass. He has 252 receiving yards this year and three touchdowns. Anderson averages 19.4 yards per catch .

Overview
Essentially, this is a repeat of last week’s game against the Ducks -- Utah has been incorporating more and more of Oregon's spread option playbook. Wilson isn't Marcus Mariota, but he's still very dangerous. Furthermore he's got Dres Anderson to work with; a far better receiver than anything Oregon had last week and the Ducks torched the WSU secondary. It is a run first system, but most of the kill shots come through the air.

Strategy
WSU needs to stick with what worked last week, and eliminate what didn't. The Cougars bottled up the Duck running backs beautifully, and put tremendous pressure on Mariota. Where they got let down was in pass coverage. The Cougar secondary needs more situational awareness and sharper communication when they are in man defense. They got burned on the long balls when the Ducks were deep in their own territory and gave free release to receivers in the red zone.

Key Statistic
9.6 yards per pass attempt: Utah runs the ball nearly twice as often as they pass, but practically average a first down per throw.

THE UTES ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
Nate Orchard, DE: Orchard leads the team with 4.5 sacks and is second in tackles.
Brian Blechen, S: Blechen missed all of 2013, but has started 36 career games and is three-time Pac-12 honorable mention.

Overview
Kyle Wittingham continues to run a very traditional 4-3 system, and it has performed brilliantly to this point. The Utes have surrendered just 17 points per game in 2014, but have yet to face an FBS offense ranked in the top 70. Additionally, Fresno State was their only opponent with any semblance of a passing game, and Utah didn't exactly shut them down (283 passing yards, 3 TDs, 0 interceptions).

Strategy
Utah ranks second in the nation with five sacks per game. WSU protected Halliday extremely well against Oregon, but he will likely be under more pressure this week. Halliday and the Cougars need to continue to execute and take advantage early as they did against Oregon with the two TD passes to Dom Williams. And just like last week, they need to avoid turnovers -- over half of the points WSU has surrendered this season have come off turnovers.

Key Statistic
15 Sacks: The number is all the more impressive given that they haven't really faced pass-heavy teams.

THE UTES ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Utah has solid special teams play again this season. Kicker Andy Phillips is 5-for-6 this season and punter Tom Hackett is among the nation's best.

FINAL THOUGHTS
-Dennis Erickson was let go as the Utah offensive coordinator but has opted to stay on as running backs coach. With the addition of former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen, there are some good résumés on the Utah sidelines.

-The Utes 26-10 victory over Michigan is impressive on paper, but it was unbalanced. Utah managed just 285 yards of offense and 13 first downs. And Michigan's four turnovers made all the difference. The Utah defense deserves a ton of credit for the win, but it must be said, this same Michigan team was shutout 31-0 against Notre Dame two weeks ago. .

-Utah is simply a different animal at home, however. The Utes haven't lost a home game by more than a touchdown since 2012, and are 13-8 in Rice-Eccles Stadium since joining the Pac-12 conference. WSU beat them soundly in Martin last year, but suffered the worst loss of Mike Leach's career (49-7) the last time they traveled to Utah. .

-WSU played with house money last week, but this game is about as close to “must win” as it gets. If WSU can garner an early conference road win, the path to a bowl game opens up right back up again. The Cougs still have four highly winnable home games left on their docket, but a loss to Utah would put them in dire straits at 1-4.


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