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What to watch for: Washington State at Utah

What to watch for: Washington State at Utah

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Last season the Utes pulled out an overtime win at Washington State during a terrible snowstorm. This year, the Utes will be at home under what should be clear skies Saturday. The Utes are clearly the more talented team, but the schematic matchup seems to favor Washington State.

Here are five things to look for Saturday afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium:

1. Bad schematic matchup for the Utes

Washington State throws the ball more than any other team in the Pac-12, averaging more than 51 pass attempts per game. On the other side of the token, the Cougars only run the ball an average of 20 times per game.

That overly unbalanced offense has led to Washington State averaging only 33.5 yards on the ground per game, but the pass offense averages 332.1 yards through the air. The Ute pass defense has been Utah's Achilles' heel. Utah opponents have completed over 65-percent of their passes against the Utes. That is the 106th-worst opponent completion percentage in the nation. So it doesn’t bode well for the Utes against a team that throws it over 50 times a game.

2. Can the Utes put pressure on the quarterback?

Senior quarterback Jeff Tuel threw the ball 60 times last week against Stanford. He was sacked 10 times, losing 64 yards in the process. That means he dropped back to pass a total of 70 times in the game.

Part of the struggle with the Utes’ pass defense (in fact, most of the struggle) is its inability to put pressure on the quarterback. Utah’s defensive line is one of the best in the country, but that’s mostly because of its ability to stop the run. The Utes are ninth in the Pac-12 in sacks with only 17. Even with 10 sacks, Stanford only beat the feisty Cougars by seven. If the Utes can’t get pressure on Tuel it’s going to be a long day Saturday.

3. The evolution of Brian Johnson’s spread offense

Urban Meyer helped bring the spread offense back to college football over a decade ago, making it famous at Utah, but his spread offense is different than other spread offenses we’ve seen both now and in the past. In reality, each spread offense that coaches bring into the game takes on a life of its own because it's unique to that coach.

We’ve yet to really see Brian Johnson’s footprint in his spread offense. You get the feeling that he is still experimenting with what he wants to do and the athletes that he has. So far he’s figured out Travis Wilson can’t run consistently like Johnson himself did when he led the Ute offense five years ago. He’s figured out DeVonte Christopher is not one of his playmakers. He’s figured out that John White is one of them and that any good spread offense needs to first establish the run.

The ideal goal of the spread offense is to get the ball to the offense’s playmakers. So far that has been minimally successful for Johnson and the Utes. If the Utes can get the ball in the hands of Kenneth Scott and Reggie Dunn as well as continue to establish the run with White and Kelvin York, they’ll win and the offense will be one step closer to where it needs to be.

4. The Wilson factor

The winner of this game will be dependent on which Wilson performs better within his capabilities — receiver Marquess Wilson for Washington State or quarterback Wilson for Utah. Wilson is making improvements each week and is doing well to not make the big mistakes. If that continues, the Utes should be able to win. Meanwhile, if Marquess Wilson goes off on the Utes like USC’s Marqise Lee, Utah is in trouble.

It’s not Wilson vs. Wilson. Marquess will probably end up with better numbers than Travis, but it’s all about who does their job the best. If Travis Wilson throws for 200-plus yards and a touchdown or two without any big mistakes, he’ll lead the Utes to a win.

5. The other side of the ball

All too often in games where one side of the matchup gets all the attention, the other side is what determines the outcome. In this game, all the hype will be about Utah’s defense against Washington State’s offense. So let’s look at the matchup between Utah’s offense and Washington’s State’s defense.

The Cougar defense is the reason Washington State hasn’t won a Pac-12 game so far. Meanwhile, the Ute offense is the main reason Utah has only won one. Where the Utes hold the advantage and where they will win the game Saturday if they are consistent is on the ground. Utah’s ground game is back on track with a strong performance by White last week and York’s emergence and the offensive line is starting to run block very well. Washington State’s run defense is ninth in the conference, giving up 168 yards per game on the ground.

Trevor Amicone is the founder of, which covers BYU, Utah and national college football with weekly polls, bowl projections, opinions and analysis. Follow its brand new Twitter page at @BYUtahInsiders and Trevor's at @TrevorAmicone.

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