Utah's defensive backs want to be remembered as the best secondary in school history. Intercepting a pass or two would help make their case, and they will have all kinds of opportunities Saturday.
That's just one way of looking at the challenge awaiting the Utes, as they meet Washington State at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash.
The matchup comes with multiple dimensions and is a checkpoint in Utah’s season, as September ends. The fundamental question is who’s dealing with more pressure: Utah’s defensive players, facing the Cougars' prolific passing scheme? Or the offensive players, who have stewed for two weeks after scoring seven points in a loss to Washington?
The Utes believe they can win the Pac-12 South title. To do so, they’ll have to beat somebody from the North at some point. Beyond seeking their first conference win of the season, the Utes have plenty to prove in Pullman. The defense would like to validate its No. 1 national ranking. The offense wants to do something, anything, to justify its existence.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham framed this game by basically giving the offense a minimum standard and forgiving the defense in advance, saying, “You're not going to beat Washington State 21-17; that's not going to happen.”
So there's a sliding scale in play Saturday. How well will Utah's defense have to play, considering no one knows what to expect from the offense?
The Ute defensive backs long ago “circled this game,” cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said. “I like that, because I never tell my boys to back down or be scared of anything or anybody.”
Knowing the Cougars will complete a bunch of passes, Shah cited a theme of the week: “Manage the damage.”
Ute cornerback Julian Blackmon would like to cause his own problems, in the process. Utah's only interceptions through three games have come from linebacker Chase Hansen and lineman Pita Tonga. The lack of pickoffs by the defensive backs is “for sure, something that's on our mind,” Blackmon said. “We're patient, we're just waiting, because we know those guys will give us those chances.”
Utah’s three opponents have totaled 37 completions in 79 attempts. The Cougars will approach those numbers in a game Blackmon considers “every DB’s dream.”
Utah's offense has bordered on nightmarish lately. The last time Ute offensive coordinator Troy Taylor visited Martin Stadium, his scheme was unstoppable. His first game with Eastern Washington of the Big Sky Conference in 2016 hardly could have gone better, as the Eagles passed for 474 yards in a 45-42 victory. Two factors are working against Taylor: He won't have Cooper Kupp, now an NFL star who posted 206 receiving yards that day, and the Cougar defense won't be all messed up.
The Spokesman-Review’s look back, in advance of a rematch this month, included a former Cougar’s recollection that half of his defensive teammates were wearing the wrong wristbands in the first half. They responded differently to the signals from the sideline, occasionally leaving Kupp wide open.
The Utes could use that kind of help, right about now. The offense has produced 17 points in two games, resulting in the staff's bye-week self-evaluation that running backs coach Kiel McDonald labeled “an absolute grind.”
McDonald, who worked with Taylor at EWU, said, “We have a great defense, and we just need to match what they're doing for us.”
The offensive buzzword is “simplified;” the Utes will use fewer personnel groups and, logically, give Zack Moss more carries. “Focus on what you do well, and then we'll have a chance to implement some different things,” McDonald said, as the staff emphasizes “things the whole offense can execute well.”
That’s not to say the Utes can thrive expect to thrive merely with Moss. After the first drive vs. USC last week, WSU’s defense allowed only 33 net rushing yards.
UTAH AT WASHINGTON STATE
At Martin Stadium, Pullman, Wash.
Kickoff • 4 p.m. MDT.
TV • Pac-12 Networks.
Radio • ESPN 700.
Records • Utah 2-1 (0-1 Pac-12); WSU 3-1 (0-1 Pac-12).
Series history • WSU leads, 8-7.
Last meeting • WSU 33, Utah 25 (2017).
About the Utes • DT Leki Fotu will miss the first half after being ejected for targeting against Washington. Hauati Pututau and Pita Tonga are listed as the starting tackles. … The last time Utah visited WSU, in a 49-37 loss in 2013, the defense faced 62 pass attempts without recording a sack or an interception. … Next Saturday’s kickoff time at Stanford will be announced Sunday; it’s possible this will be Utah’s only afternoon game until mid-November.
About the Cougars • They lost 39-36 at USC last week, while holding the Trojans to 113 net rushing yards. … Coach Mike Leach, who graduated from BYU but didn’t play college football, is 41-39 in his seventh season at WSU. … Having played one Power Five opponent, the Cougars rank No. 7 nationally in total defense, allowing 265.8 yards.