The Utah Utes and Washington State Cougars might be as far apart as two teams could be in philosophy and personalities, but they are right in sync when it comes to the goal of becoming a better team in the Pac-12.
The Utes, while beaten, battered and bruised, are determined they won’t be the ones thrown off course Saturday when the teams meet in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Utes must win three of their four games to be bowl-eligible. With games against Washington and Arizona next, the Utes know they can’t afford to lose to the Cougars.
“We’ve been having a rough season, but we still have a lot to play for,” kick returner Reggie Dunn said. “We got one win, and we want to keep it going our way.”
Dunn was the highlight of the Utes’ 49-27 win over Cal a week ago, a game in which the offense enjoyed its best outing of the year.
However, the focus is back on the defense against the Cougars, who are one of the nation’s most prolific passing teams, averaging 332.1 yards through the air compared with just 33.5 on the ground. If the Utes were playing the Cougars a few weeks ago, when their secondary was struggling with assignments and giving up big plays, facing such a passing team might have been more difficult for Utah.
However, the Utes are feeling better about their defense, even if star corner Ryan Lacy is questionable for Saturday’s game.
“We’ve had people hurt before,” safety Eric Rowe said. “You always have to have people step up until he comes back. No one is scared of that.”
The Cougars’ top receiver is Marquess Wilson, who ranks 17th nationally, averaging 92.5 yards a game, and is 13th all-time in Pac-12 history with 3,134 career receiving yards.
However, redshirt freshman Dominque Williams has been getting more reps than Wilson in practice and could start Saturday.
“They have a lot of young receivers who are good,” safeties coach Morgan Scalley said. “We can’t focus on one player, so we have to be good in our base defense and focus on fundamentals and technique.”
Washington State uses two quarterbacks, with Jeff Tuel (137-for-205, 1,309 yards, 7 TDs) recently getting more playing time over Connor Halliday (109-for-206, 1,348 yards, 9 TDs). However, the Utes say there isn’t much difference in planning for the two.
“Both have had their moments,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We have to be ready no matter who is at quarterback.”
Going against WSU coach Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” passing attack will be something different for the Utes. But defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said it isn’t as much of a drastic change as some might believe.
“They spread the ball out more, but it’s really an extension of the run game,” he said. “They use a lot of screen plays and quick throws, so in that aspect we can’t give them any easy throws because they’ll march down the field or make a guy miss and go for a big play. We have to give them as little space as we can.”
After giving more than their share of big plays in previous Pac-12 games, the Utes are planning to make a few and not allow them Saturday — the formula they used against Cal last week.
“We need the touchdowns; we need the Reggie [Dunn]-type plays every game,” Lacy said.
WSU at Utah
P Saturday, 1 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Network. Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 3-5, 1-4; WSU 2-6, 0-5
Series history • Utah leads 6-5
Last meeting • Utah won 30-27 (OT), Nov. 19, 2011
About the Utes • They must win three of their last four games to be bowl eligible. ... Offensive lineman Jeremiah Tofaeono (foot) is out for the second straight game, and backup running back Kelvin York, offensive lineman Sam Brenner and corner Ryan Lacy also have injuries and are questionable.
About the Cougars • Their defense has improved but still struggles, giving up 29.6 points. ... Linebacker Travis Long is fourth in the league, averaging 0.94 sacks per game.