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SALT LAKE CITY — After Utah’s 44-21 loss to Oregon last Saturday, it was officially confirmed — the Utes will have to win their final two games to go bowling this season.
Much has been made about whether or not the Utes have improved in their third season in the Pac-12, and the argument can certainly be made that they have. However, the fact Utah still is down to crunch time means little has changed for the team in a conference that is constantly increasing the level of play, both on and off the field.
There were some positives to take from the Oregon game, though. Except for a third quarter where the Ducks scored 20 points, Utah hung with Oregon quite well — even with an offense that featured Adam Schulz at quarterback. The Utes held Oregon’s vaunted rushing attack to only 145 yards and held Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota to -18 yards rushing.
Still, the Utes once again failed to put all three phases of the game together, falling on a special teams mishap that allowed De’Anthony Thomas to return a kickoff 86 yards — right after the Utes had brought the score to 17-14.
Now, with all of the pressure in the world on Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and company, the Utes will head to Washington State — a team that has started the process of being turned around. WSU's coach, former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, is one of the nation’s best offensive minds, and he has the Cougars coming into this game with the nation’s seventh-best passing attack.
So, as Washington State sits one game away from a bowl game and with the Utes needing both games to make it, the key matchup for Utah this week is the matchup between the Washington State quarterback and the Utah defense.
Why this matchup?
It seems like every week, Utah's defense is about to go under the knife — the knife of a traditional Pac-12 offense. After this game against Washington State, the Utes will have faced the 22nd, 21st and 7th-best passing offenses in the country over the past three weeks. As said before, never has a team in the state of Utah faced a tougher schedule than this year’s Utes.
Still, to beat a team like Washington State, the Utes will have to take Wazzou quarterback Connor Halliday out of the game. Halliday has passed for 22 touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards. The best way to beat Halliday is to do what teams like Stanford did — out-physical the Cougars by interrupting the passing game and forcing Wazzou to turn to the running game.
As part of this, the Utes will have to match up their large defensive line man-to-man with the Cougars’ offensive line, and then drop linebackers into coverage to try to cover the passing lanes. Hopefully for Utah, the added coverage will confuse Halliday for long enough to let the defensive line reach him or force him to scramble — a skill that is not in his arsenal.
Who wins this matchup?
Washington State is another team, like Utah, that is on the rise in the Pac-12 conference and will almost definitely be challenging in the North Division in the next five years. This week’s matchup also features the matchup of one of the league’s premier offensive minds — Leach — with one of the league’s premier defensive minds — Whittingham.
Neither team can afford to lose this game on its quest toward bowl eligibility, as Wazzou’s last game comes against Washington, but the Utes can’t even imagine a scenario where they lose the game. Also, the Travis Wilson factor will be out there, as it is probable the Utes will play hard for a teammate whose future is very much in danger. Therefore, the Utes will find a way to out-physical Wazzou and head home for the Colorado game with a chance to gain bowl eligibility.