Technically, the Utah Utes must win their final two games to be bowl eligible. But as far as the team is concerned, Saturday’s game at Washington State is its own version of a postseason playoff affair.
As in, win and move on, lose and go home.
And sitting at home in December for a second year in a row while other teams are prepping for bowl games doesn’t sound like a great scenario to the Utes.
“This game coming up is the most important game since I’ve been here,” tight end Jake Murphy said. “It’s win at all costs. The players who weren’t there last year don’t know the heartache of a 5-7 season, but we remember that.”
The Utes (4-6, 1-6) also say they want to win for quarterback Travis Wilson, whose football career is in jeopardy after post-concussion exams revealed a pre-existing injury to an intracranial artery. The Utes won’t know for another three months whether Wilson can return to the football field.
“It’s not a done deal yet,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “He is a tough competitor and we are holding out hope.”
Unfortunately for the Utes, they are facing a team with as many motivations to win as they have.
Washington State (5-5, 3-4) needs to beat either the Utes or win at Washington in the Apple Cup to be bowl eligible for the first time since 2003.
For a team that has gone just 14-32 during the last four years, Washington State’s seniors would like to at least go out with a bowl game experience. No doubt the Cougars would prefer to take care of business against Utah rather than try and upset Washington in Seattle.
Utah defensive end Trevor Reilly acknowledged that it is a big game for both teams.
“If we don’t win this one, it turns the other one into just a nice Thanksgiving game,” he said. “We have to win it so it makes it bigger than any game we’ve had this year.”
The good news for the Utes is they face a more one-dimensional offense than they’ve seen in several weeks. The bad news is it doesn’t play to their strengths.
Washington State is averaging 360.4 yards passing a game and a measly 57 rushing yards per game.
The Utes do very well against the run, holding teams to an average of just 142.6 yards, but they’re giving up 244.7 yards passing.
Utah’s secondary has played better as the season progressed, and safety Eric Rowe believes Utah can get the job done Saturday.
“We’ll definitely be tested in the back, but I’m confident our corners can play man [defense],” he said. “From the Oregon State game ’til now, we’ve been working on technique, fundamentals and footwork and everything has gotten a lot better. Running man against them, I wouldn’t have no problem with that.”
Still, in a perfect world the Utes will get to Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday before he gets much time to throw. Utah leads the nation with 36 total sacks and they’d like to add to that total today.
“We’ve got to get in there and be disruptive,” linebacker Jacoby Hale said. “We don’t want a repeat of last year when we didn’t go to a bowl game so we know we have to win this one.”
As for its own offense, the Utes don’t expect much changes with Schulz at the helm for a second week in a row.
The Utes need more out of their run game to help Schulz after they managed just 116 rushing yards against the Ducks, but Schulz said he was prepared to do what it takes — whatever it takes — to win as well.
“We need to get this win here and then win next week so we can get to a bowl game,” he said. “We want to end this season on a positive note. That’s what we are looking at right now.”
Utah at Washington State
O At Martin Stadium (Pullman, Wash.)
Kickoff • Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Network
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 4-6, 1-6; Washington St. 5-5, 3-4
Series history • Utah leads 7-5
Last meeting • Utah 49, Washington St. 6 (Nov. 3, 2012)
About the Utes • Adam Schulz will make his second straight start at quarterback. ... Utah is 1-2 this season and 5-6 overall against the North. ... Running back Kelvin York is expected to play after missing the last game with a knee injury. ... The forecast is calling for 35 degrees and sunny on Saturday.
About the Cougars • Coming off a 24-17 win at Arizona to move them within one victory of being bowl eligible. ... Connor Halliday ranks fourth nationally by averaging 341.7 passing yards a game. ... Deone Bucannon is ninth nationally averaging 0.5 interceptions a game. ... Coached by Mike Leach, who is 8-14 in his second year.