Utes reach a critical stage of their season, Saturday, even in September

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah receiver Bryan Thompson (19) finishes an 82 yard touchdown reception vs. Idaho State on Sept. 14, 2019. The Utes have to score "40 or more points" to beat Washington State, assistant coach Freddie Whittingham says.

Utah football fans will wish their team could start over and replay the late-September schedule, if the Utes lose Saturday night's homecoming game in the rain at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Washington State already made one opponents’ star players decide to redo their senior seasons. Houston’s quarterback and a top receiver will exploit an NCAA redshirt rule, stop playing after four games and try again next year after going 1-3 to begin 2018, including a 31-24 loss to WSU.

No. 19 Utah’s response to another 0-2 start in conference play would be less extreme (although the redshirt option remains available to any player, prior to Saturday’s game). The Utes would remind everyone how they recovered from last September’s defeats against Washington and Washington State and won the school’s first Pac-12 South title.

Even so, another loss to WSU would create a long two weeks for Utah until the next game (at Oregon State) and drive home how this season was supposed to be different. Winning the South? Routine. The Rose Bowl? Reasonable goal. The College Football Playoff? Not inconceivable.

But now, Utah already is in scoreboard-watching mode Saturday. Imagine if USC beats Washington and Utes loses to WSU. The Trojans would have a 2½-game lead over Utah in the South, plus the tiebreaker. Conversely, a Utah win and a USC loss would improve the Utes’ outlook.

Utah’s part of that equation starts with stopping a WSU passing scheme that’s producing nearly 500 yards per game. In turn, that places pressure on Utah’s offense. “We feel like we’ve got to score 40 or more points, honestly, to win,” tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham said.

That’s a compliment to WSU, not a commentary on Utah’s defense – although questions persist about a Ute secondary that gave up 179 yards on four passes in a 30-23 loss to USC. The Trojans thrived with a “backyard football” approach, as Ute coach Kyle Whittingham labeled it. “Just chuck it up there and go make a play, which they did over and over and over.”

Ute cornerback Jaylon Johnson described WSU’s visit as the secondary’s opportunity to "honestly, just prove a point ... try to redeem myself.”

The Cougars’ style is more precise and methodical, built around short routes, even if they throw on almost play. Utah will counter with a ball-control offense, strategy that works only if the Utes finish drives. They possessed the ball for 38-plus minutes at USC, but what did they really gain?

Utah’s health is another concern. Quarterback Tyler Huntley, who was limping last week, appears more likely to play Saturday than running back Zack Moss, who missed the second half with a shoulder injury. The Utes may have other injuries that are “for us to know and deal with,” as Whittingham restated his policy this week.

Rain is likely and thunderstorms are possible during the game. How those conditions would affect Washington State's passing game is one more element of intrigue.

What's clear is that everything became more complicated for Utah after last week in Los Angeles, stemming from short-yardage and big-yardage plays. The Utes scored a total of three points after reaching the USC 2- and 1-yard lines; they gave up a 77-yard touchdown pass, with two defenders in the picture.

Washington State then topped Utah in the category of missed opportunities, blowing a 32-point lead in the third quarter of a 67-63 loss to UCLA and falling out of the Top 25.

The Utes played Friday, giving them one more day to recover. Monday's atmosphere? “Like a morgue,” safety Julian Blackmon said that day.

As of Tuesday, “They bounced back,” Whittingham said. “They were mad in [Monday’s] team meeting, there were a lot of disappointed people. That’s how you’d want it. But now, you’ve got to put it behind you, you’ve got to move forward, and they’ve been able to do it — at least, by their actions in practice.”

Same story in Pullman, Wash., where coach Mike Leach on Tuesday cut off questions about the UCLA game.

The responses will come Saturday night, when one team will exit the stadium with an 0-2 conference record.


At Rice-Eccles Stadium

Kickoff: Saturday, 8 p.m.

TV: FS1.

Radio: ESPN 700.

Records: WSU 3-1 (0-1 Pac-12); Utah 3-1 (0-1).

Series history: WSU leads, 9-7.

Last meeting: WSU 28, Utah 24 (2018)

About the Cougars: WSU coach Mike Leach is 4-1 vs. Utah, with four straight wins. … Leach, a BYU graduate who grew up in Wyoming, is 52-41 at WSU in his eighth season. The Cougars are 40-16 since 2015 (Utah is 38-19 in that period). … Cougar QB Anthony Gordon is a two-time Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week this season, even though his nine-touchdown performance vs. UCLA did not merit the award that went to the Bruins’ quarterback.

About the Utes: The Pac-12 Networks will stage “The Pregame” show live from the campus at 4 p.m. MDT. ... Utah is 18-18 in Pac-12 home games … Andy Ludwig’s 17-game winning streak as Utah’s offensive coordinator, starting with the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl and including a 10-year gap, ended at USC. ... In Ludwig’s scheme that often uses two tight ends, slot receiver Britain Covey has 10 catches for 77 yards in his return from knee surgery, compared with 27 receptions for 284 yards in the first four games of 2018. ... Utah officially has announced a 2022-23 series vs. Florida.