The TribUte newsletter: Utah’s defense has been a mixed bag vs. athletic QBs. Can the Utes stop Cam Ward?

Plus: Shortening the defensive playbook, Rising slinging the ball around The Palouse, and the Pac-12 men’s hoops preseason poll

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utes defensive tackle Junior Tafuna (58) celebrates after intercepting a pass for Utah, in football action at Rice-Eccles Stadium between the Utah Utes and the Southern Utah Thunderbirds on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

Pullman, Wash. • The University of Utah has had its hands full this season when facing athletic, dual-threat quarterbacks.

Highly-touted Florida QB Anthony Richardson has looked pedestrian for much of this season, but Utah made him look like Randall Cunningham in a 29-26 Gators win. UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns in downing Utah, 42-32. Caleb Williams finished 25-for-42 for 381 yards and five touchdowns on Oct. 15 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but in fairness, the Utes did a much better job with Williams in the second half, holding him to 152 yards passing as part of a 43-42 win.

Up next on this carousel of dangerous quarterbacks is Washington State third-year sophomore Cam Ward, who drew an interesting comparison this week from Utah.

“He’s very similar to what we saw vs. SC,” Kyle Whittingham said.

Added sophomore defensive end Jonah Elliss: “I think he’s really similar to USC just in that he’s elusive.”

Added third-year sophomore defensive tackle Junior Tafuna: “He’s kind of like Caleb Williams. He has a great arm, they’re both elusive, too.”

That comparison may merely be front of mind given USC was Utah’s last opponent. Williams (86.5 QBR, third in Pac-12) certainly has better numbers than Ward (53.0 QBR, eighth in Pac-12), but at least some of that is because USC’s supporting cast is better, as evidenced by the Trojans’ 30-14 win over the Cougars on Oct. 8 in Los Angeles.

Ward is operating head coach Jake Dickert’s revamped Air Raid offense, and therefore is not running nearly as much as Williams has, but Ward is capable of tucking it and going if he has to. The threat is there, just like with Richardson, just like with Thompson-Robinson, just like with Williams.

“He’s got a big arm, he can extend plays,” Whittingham said. “He’s hard to sack, but not as hard to sack once you get a hold of him. The other guy was like tackling an o-lineman. This guy is very similar, can get himself out of jams, and has done a nice job throwing the ball.”

Added Elliss: “It’s hard to get him down. I don’t think he’s as strong in his lower body, so when you’ve got him, I think we’ll be able to get him down. Whereas USC’s quarterback, you would get him, but he would throw guys off. He’s really similar to a lot of these athletic quarterbacks we’ve seen.”

Other things on my mind

• Jonah Elliss said on Monday that Utah is shortening its defensive playbook vs. Washington State. That struck me as interesting because one, the Utes have given up over 500 yards in each of the last two games. Two, the defense was excellent in the second half vs. USC. Three, Whittingham has indicated a couple of times that the second-half effort was thanks in part to simplifying things at halftime. Has Morgan Scalley’s defense turned a corner?

• I find it hard to believe Utah is going to want to have Cam Rising throw the ball 35-plus times on a near-freezing night on The Palouse, but if you’ve listened to Whittingham since the USC game, that feels like exactly what the Utes might do. Remember, Rising is coming off 29-for-43 for 415 yards against USC, and looked in control in doing so.

The Pac-12 men’s basketball preseason poll released on Wednesday morning was pretty straightforward. Utah at 10, UCLA-Arizona-Oregon-USC at 1-2-3-4, and the middle of the league feeling like it’s up for debate as Nov. 7 season-openers loom across the country. To that point, I am bullish on Washington State, which went to the NIT semifinals last season and returns 6-foot-11 sophomore Muhamed Gueye, who is squarely on the NBA radar. I had the Cougars at No. 5 in the poll I submitted to the Pac-12 office. They wound up at No. 8 on Wednesday.