Early last week, Washington State head coach Jake Dickert, first-year Cougars defensive coordinator Brian Ward, and the rest of the defensive coaching staff began watching film of the University of Utah’s win over USC on Oct. 15.
What stuck out that night about the Utes’ offense was as obvious as it was impressive. While it will not dictate the Cougars’ entire defensive game plan when the two sides meet Thursday night in Pullman (8 p.m., Fox Sports 1), it has presumably taken up a substantial amount of time and attention in the runup to the game.
Washington State needs to stop, or at least disrupt, senior tight end Dalton Kincaid, who is coming off 16 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown on 16 targets.
“If I was a defensive coordinator, that would be a primary objective if you look at your tape,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said, “particularly our last game and saw what he was able to accomplish and do something to say, ‘Hey, if you’re gonna beat us, it’s going to be something other than the tight end catching 16 balls.’
“We’ll see what they have in mind, but Dalton is a real talented kid. I don’t know if you can completely take him out of the game, but I’m sure they’ll try to slow him down.”
Washington State keying in on Kincaid means there could be more opportunities for Utah’s wide receivers, a group that has been bandied about since fall camp as needing to, not to mention wanting to, be a bigger part of the offense.
Fourth-year sophomore Devaughn Vele, Utah’s perceived WR1 when fall camp began, has taken advantage of increased opportunities with the loss of tight end Brant Kuithe to a torn right ACL. His 32 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns are all tops among Utah wide receivers, and second on the team behind Kincaid. Vele’s season numbers to date are better than his career numbers across his first three seasons (25-401-1).
Aside from Vele, Money Parks (11-192-0) has had some moments, including a 45-yard reception up the middle of the field from Rising vs. USC on a rare deep call. Jaylen Dixon has contributed positively this season, as has Solomon Enis, as has Makai Cope.
Assuming Utah gets typical production from Vele, getting something tangible from Parks, Dixon, Enis, or Cope would take some pressure off Kincaid.
“Dalton’s a hell of a player, so obviously, they’re going to game-plan around him and make sure he doesn’t get the touches he normally would get,” Vele said. “As a receiver group, we have to understand that and exploit those weaknesses. If they’re doubling him, we’re going to have 1-on-1 matchups or someone’s going to be open. We just have to make sure we’re executing. When the ball is thrown our way, we have to catch the ball, run the right routes, and block the right person.”
Added Rising: “They have to step their game, make sure they’re getting open, defeating man-to-man and just finding the zones in zone coverage. I think Coach Lud (offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig) has a great plan laid out for them, so they have to go out there and take advantage.”
One factor to keep in mind here is that Whittingham has indicated multiple times since the USC game that Utah, which is traditionally a run-first, if not run-heavy operation, is comfortable going heavier to the pass. This comes after Rising set career-highs for completions (29), attempts (43), and yards (413) against the Trojans.
Furthermore, Utah’s rushing offense, perennially the strength of the offense, has not been as such this fall, a point that Whittingham was willing to concede on Monday.
“We’re not as productive in the run game as we have been in years past, but on the other side of the ball, we’re throwing the ball pretty darn good,” Whittingham said. “As long as you’re getting it done one way or the other, but we seem to be at our best when we’re running the ball effectively, which opens up the play-action pass game even more so than it has been.”
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