‘They’ve seen it all:’ Utah searches for strategy vs. pass-happy Washington State

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham thoroughly enjoyed five plays of last September's loss to Washington State.

That’s how many times the Cougars’ tailback took a handoff and ran for modest yardage, in something resembling the style of football that Whittingham seemingly was born to play and coach. Having defended WSU’s 56 passing attempts that afternoon, accounting for 445 yards, Whittingham remembered a bygone era of the sport.

Asked this week if he wished football consisted strictly of I-formation, power running and the tougher team always won, Whittingham said, “Well, it used to be that way. The game’s evolved, without a doubt. I’m old school, I know that, as far as defensive mentality, but you’ve got to evolve with the game — and that’s what we’ve done, hopefully.”

Whittingham in recent years made a concession to modern offenses, adjusting his standard scheme to five defensive backs and only two linebackers. He may use six DBs at times vs. WSU in Saturday night’s homecoming game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.


Saturday, 8 p.m.

TV: FS1.

Golf legend Ben Hogan famously disdained the importance of putting in the sport, believing that ball-striking required far more skill and effort and was the true test of a player. Similarly, Whittingham said he never would have believed his team could rush for 247 yards, hold USC to 13 yards on the ground and lose to the Trojans last week.

But that’s football in this era, and Whittingham’s only choice is to find creative ways to deal with WSU coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid approach.

That's a difficult chore, because “they've seen it all” from opposing defenses, Whittingham said. “There's nothing that we're going to do defensively that's going to surprise 'em. … You can rush one, drop 10. You can rush eight. You can do whatever you want to do, and [Leach] will have seen it along the way.”

The system’s roots are traced to BYU, where Leach was a student when Whittingham was playing linebacker in Provo. Hal Mumme, who hired Leach as an assistant at tiny Iowa Wesleyan, often visited BYU in developing the scheme that has spread throughout college football and into the NFL.

There's great challenge and potential reward in scheming to stop the Cougars' prolific attack. As Whittingham said, “Football's the ultimate chess match.”

Yet the almost-annual game vs. WSU (the Cougars have won the last four meetings, starting in 2013) has become one that Whittingham is eager to move beyond and face offenses that are least somewhat more traditional. In a completely different way, Leach’s scheme has something in common with the Air Force option offenses of Utah’s Mountain West era. It is unlike anything that anybody else runs, and is agonizing to defend.

USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell is from the Leach coaching tree, and Whittingham sees value in facing those teams in consecutive weeks. The Cougars take passing to a whole other level, though.

Imagine being Ute defensive tackle Leki Fotu, playing in a program with a mantra of stopping the run and having Saturday's opponent run the ball only as an occasional diversion. “It's weird, to just pass-rush probably 80 percent of the time,” Fotu said, with the Cougars being “way different from all the other teams.”

Utah's strategy will involve a ball-control offense, limiting the number of plays for its defense, and trying to rotate defensive linemen to keep them fresh as they chase the quarterback 60 or more times.

Sacks, Fotu said, will be the “golden ticket” Saturday. Cougar quarterback Anthony Gordon is difficult to sack, because he delivers the ball quickly. Yet the Utes managed to sack former QB Gardner Minshew twice in the second half last season, after Whittingham and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley went with a standard four-man line. They rushed three (plus an occasional blitzer) in the first half, partly because Fotu was serving a targeting suspension, and gave up 21 points.

In a 28-24 victory, WSU's second-half possessions went like this: missed field goal, punt, punt, punt, 89-yard touchdown pass.

Until that play, the Utes were shockingly close to defying Whittingham's prediction that “you're not going to beat Washington State 21-17; that's not going to happen.”

That was a rare acknowledgement from a defense-oriented coach. It also reflected the reality of facing the Cougars, like it or not.