This is it. Amidst disappointment, underachievement and the devastating loss of Travis Wilson, the Utes still have a chance to make a bowl game and chalk the 2013 season up as a success. It won’t be easy, but the opportunity begins and ends this week in Pullman as Utah travels to take on Washington State. The Cougars have had an up and down season and are near the Utes in terms of division standings. The team was bolstered last week after a road win in Tucson against Arizona, but only after losing in three consecutive weeks to Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State. Will the beaten down Utes be able to rally around Adam Schulz for a road victory? Or will the Cougars shut the door on Utah once and for all? Here’s a position-by-position look at this week’s matchup and which team will have the edge heading into Saturday’s game:
The news of Travis Wilson’s injury is devastating both for Wilson personally and the Utah football program, but the Utes will have to rally around Adam Schulz and move forward. Schulz performed admirably, though not spectacularly against Oregon and seemed to be undaunted by the challenge of playing in Autzen Stadium. Though his statline wasn’t great, 13 of 30 for 181 yards, a touchdown, a rushing touchdown and an interception, his bravado will help the Utes in a tough test on the road in Pullman. Overall in the two games in which Schulz had more than 20 passing attempts, he’s completed 25 of 53 passes for 323 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. However, the question is whether or not Schulz will be able to keep up in a shootout with Connor Halliday.
Halliday, a junior, has had an up and down season in regard to his touchdown to interception ratio, but he’s always good for at least 300 yards passing per game. In 10 games this season, Halliday has thrown for at least 300 yards in seven of them and is averaging 342 passing yards per game, second in the Pac-12. The key for the Utes will be finally getting a few turnovers out of Halliday as he’s thrown at least one pick in every game and has five games in which he’s thrown multiple interceptions. Halliday has 3,417 yards this season with 22 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
Edge: Washington State
The running back carousel continues for the Utes as Bubba Poole was the leader in carries against Oregon, grinding out 54 yards and a touchdown. Lucky Radley wasn’t far behind with 45 yards of his own, but it’s alarming with only two weeks left in the season that no Utah running back has more than two touchdowns this season. Kelvin York was held out against Oregon and although Poole ranks eighth in the Pac-12 in average rushing yards per game, six of the rushers ranked above him each have at least 10 touchdowns. The Utes will need some combination of the three backs to have a big game against Washington State to keep the ball out of Halliday’s hands and keep pressure off Schulz.
Luckily for Utah, Washington State is the epitome of rushing futility in the Pac-12. The Cougars prioritize the passing game, resulting in a dead last ranking in rushing per game with only 57 yards per game and tied for second last in the conference in rushing touchdowns with 10. Marcus Mason, who has 284 yards rushing and two touchdowns, is the de facto workhorse back for the Cougars, but Jeremiah Laufasa is the scorer with 155 yards rushing and seven touchdowns. Overall, don’t expect Washington State to run the ball very often in this one.
Jake Murphy returned for the Utes against Oregon and showed why he’s been sorely missed after catching two passes for 43 yards and a touchdown. Oregon keyed on Dres Anderson and limited him to only four catches for 37 yards, stats that won’t cut it against Mike Leach’s air raid offensive style. Sean Fitzgerald disappointed against the Ducks as well, catching only one pass for seven yards. The Utes will need outstanding performances from a few receivers to keep up with Halliday and his supporting cast, putting the pressure on Anderson, Fitzgerald and Schulz’s safety blanket in Murphy to put up big numbers.
As stated before, Washington State sells out for the passing game and Halliday has completed passes to 15 different receivers this season. The leading receiver, Gabe Marks, was held without a catch against Arizona, but has generally been the go-to guy for Halliday, catching 63 passes for 721 yards and six touchdowns in 2013. Vince Mayle and Domonique Williams are other players to watch for the Cougars. The duo has combined for 881 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
Edge: Washington State
The Utes’ offensive line held up well for the most part against Oregon, surrendering only one sack and keeping Schulz upright in the pocket. After giving up nine total sacks against Arizona State and USC, it’s encouraging to see Utah’s pass protection hold up well on the road against a quality opponent. Utah is tied with Washington State for sixth in the Pac-12 with 22 surrendered sacks.
Despite getting the victory on the road last week, Washington State gave up four sacks against Arizona. After giving up three sacks against Arizona State, almost one-third of the Cougars’ surrendered sacks in 2013 have come in the last two weeks.
If there is one unit the Utes can be proud of this season, it’s the play of the defensive line, which still leads the conference with 36 sacks. Utah sacked the very elusive and athletic Marcus Mariota three times and racked up six tackles for loss. Overall, the Utes have 71 tackles for loss this season and should be able to get significant heat on Halliday to keep him uncomfortable. Trevor Reilly, who has 15 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks this season, will have to make a significant impact to keep the Cougars’ passing game in check.
Washington State ranks near the bottom of the Pac-12 in sacks with only 17 this season, less than half of Utah’s total. The Cougars only got to Arizona quarterback BJ Denker once last week and sacked Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly only twice the week before. Xavier Cooper is the player to watch for Washington State. The redshirt sophomore has 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks this season along with two fumble recoveries.
Utah’s Achilles heel this season has been a lack of turnovers, none more so than in the passing game, where Utah has only two interceptions. The Utes rank second to last overall in the conference with a minus 9 turnover ratio. Utah ranks eighth overall in the Pac-12 with 245 yards surrendered through the air per game and has given up 16 touchdowns this season.
Washington State is on par with Utah and has surrendered 262 passing yards per game along with 17 touchdowns. However, the Cougars have two players with double as many interceptions as the entire Utah team. Deone Bucannon has five interceptions and Damante Hornton has four, two players to watch against Schulz in the passing game.
Edge: Washington State
Prediction: Both teams will be playing with a sense of desparation to make a bowl game. Schulz played well on the road against Oregon and the Utes kept Oregon’s potent offense in check for the first half last Saturday, showing they can hang on the road. However, Halliday will be too much for the Utes secondary and will carry Washington State to a victory. Utah’s defense will keep it close for a while, but the gap in quarterback experience will be enough to doom the Utes to a bowless season as the Cougars win 35-17.