The Utah offense started rolling in the second quarter last week against UCLA, and it really hit its stride after halftime with 31 points. The Utes hadn’t even scored more than 30 points in an entire game against a Pac-12 Conference opponent this season.
After several weeks of grumbling about the Utes abandoning the running game too early and not putting the ball in the hands of featured running back Zack Moss enough, they rushed for 272 yards, with Moss gaining 153 of that. Just like that, all was well with Utah (5-4, 2-4) and Ute coach Kyle Whittingham awarded first-year offensive coordinator Troy Taylor the game ball.
“We got into a rhythm with the run game, and the rest was pretty much history from there,” Moss said.
Of course, that was last week. This week poses an entirely new test. Washington State, ranked No. 19 in the AP poll and No. 20 in the coaches poll, will bring one of the Pac-12’s stingiest defenses into Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Cougars (8-2, 5-2) held the conference’s leading rusher and Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Love to just 69 yards and Stanford to 93 rushing yards as a team last weekend. They came into this week ranked 10th in Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense and 35th in rushing defense.
Will the Utes have to switch gears and go to the pass more often early in hopes of loosening up the defense for the run?
“We hope not,” Whittingham said. “We hope we can still be efficient running the football, but like I said, you have to scheme maybe a little bit differently. That’s the key, is they move so much that you have to be able to hit movement and have your guys get a bite on their defenders. They have a tendency to slip gaps and get up field and anytime you have defensive linemen in your back field, it is hard to run the ball.
“So, we don’t want to say that we are going to change our M.O. dramatically, but we are going to have to have a little different approach this week,” he added.
Opponents have had success on the ground against the Cougar defense. USC running back Ronald Jones ran for 128 yards on 14 carries in a 3-point loss at Washington State. Cal’s Vic Enwere rushed for 102 yards in a win a 37-3 win over the Cougars, and Arizona rushed for 310 yards on its way to a 58-point performance in a win over the Cougars.
Arizona’s attack utilized a two-headed monster in running back JJ Taylor and quarterback Khalil Tate. Tate rushed for 146 yards and passed for 275 and two touchdowns, while Taylor racked up 153 yards and two touchdowns.
While Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley has been the team’s second-leading rusher, he said he hasn’t necessarily looked at Tate’s performance as a blueprint for himself going into the weekend.
“I feel like if we come out and do our job, everything will be taken care of,” Huntley said. “... I just focus on what I need to do just to get us a win.”
Senior left guard Salesi Uhatafe credited last week’s impressive rushing performance to the offensive line’s focus on communicating assignments and eliminating uncertainty.
“This week in our group it will come down to finishing and kind of accepting the reality that not every play is going to be perfect,” Uhatafe said. “The opposing team will have their big plays, and I just think we’ve got weather through that storm and be ready to attack it. One thing will be finishing. Who is going to be the team that can out-finish who? This week, [that] will kind decide the run game.”
WASHINGTON STATE AT UTAH
At Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Kickoff • 3:30 p.m. MT
TV • Pac-12 Network
Radio • 700 AM, Sirius XM 93/XM 198, Internet 960
Records • Utah 5-4, 2-4; Washington State 8-2, 5-2
Series history • Tied 7-7.
About the Cougars • Senior quarterback and Logan native Luke Falk broke the Pac-12 Conference’s all-time record for passing yards last weekend against Stanford. He enters this week one touchdown shy of tying and two away from breaking the conference’s career touchdown pass record set by USC’s Matt Barkley. … Defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa, a second-team all-conference pick last season, entered this week leading the conference and ranked fourth in FBS with 16.5 tackles-for-loss. He also ranked second in the conference in sacks (6.5). … Washington State is looking for its first 9-2 start since 2003.
About the Utes • Utah running back Zack Moss is coming off of a career-high 153-yard game against UCLA. He’s closing in on 1,000 yards for the season. He currently has 740 rushing yards with three regular-season game remaining. … Tyler Huntley improved to 5-2 as the Utes starting quarterback. He has completed 66.7 percent of his passes and threw from 1,648 yards (235.4 yards per game) with 12 touchdown and six interceptions. He has also rushed for an average of 54.4 yards per game, second-most among conference quarterbacks. … Utah has gone 0-2 against Pac-12 North opponents this season with losses to Stanford and Oregon.