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SALT LAKE CITY — In an impressive defensive showcase in last week's game, the Utah football team improved to 3-0 with a win over the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor.
"It was good to get the win on the road at Michigan," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Very proud of our guys, players and coaches. Defense played exceptionally well. Special teams were very good."
While the offense wasn't firing on all cylinders as it had the previous two games, the Utes won the battle of the turnover margin 4-1.
"Historically, our chances are very good anytime we're on the plus side of the turnover margin. Proved to be the case again," Whittingham added.
The Utes now turn their attention to Pac-12 play, something that has been a bit of a struggle for the Utes over the past few seasons. Utah has gone 0-3 in conference openers since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.
Utah will get a chance to snap that streak as it hosts Washington State Saturday evening in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Here are five keys for the Utes as they get ready to take on the Cougars:
WSU quarterback Connor Halliday has put up some big numbers this season. In week three against Portland State, he threw for 544 yards and tied a school record with six touchdown passes. He followed that performance by going 43-of-63 for 436 yards and four touchdowns against No. 2 Oregon last weekend. Halliday enters the week leading the country in total passing yards (1,901), touchdowns (16) and is second in passing yards-per-game (475.3) and total offense (461.3). The Utes will have their hands full as they take on one of the best quarterbacks in not only the conference, but in the country. Forcing him out of the pocket and getting Halliday to get rid of the football sooner in his reads will be key as the Utes' secondary is still fairly unproven. This game could turn into a shootout, with the margin of victory coming from a forced defensive turnover.
Along with key 1, Washington State will be able to move the football. The key for the Utes will be to buckle down in the red zone and limit the Cougars to field goal attempts rather than touchdowns. The Utes employed a similar strategy last week against Michigan, with the Wolverines' lone touchdown coming on an interception return on defense. It is such a fine line between playing too aggressive and giving up the big play versus letting the other team march right down the field using soft zone coverages. Mix up the coverages and wait for WSU to make a mistake, then be in a position to capitalize on it.
Utah's secondary will be tested against WSU, but the two biggest threats to counter that Cougar offensive attack will be in the Utes' backfield. Move the chains with running backs Bubba Poole and Devontae Booker and keep Halliday on the sideline as much as they can. The Utes are striving to have an up-tempo offense this season, and there will be times in this game when it will be pertinent for the Utes to use that fast tempo, but for the most part, slowing down the game will benefit the Utes, especially at home.
Controlling the clock will be important in keeping WSU off the field, but also important because of the weather forecast. A rain-soaked Rice-Eccles surely would favor the Utes and their running attack. Can the Utes beat the weather with a solid run game, also limiting the number of opportunities for WSU quarterback Connor Halliday?
After beating the No. 5 Stanford Cardinal last season at home, many Ute fans thought the Utes had turned a corner and were ready to be competitive at the Pac-12 level. The next week the Utes were outmatched and outcoached in a road contest at Arizona. Sure the Utes are 3-0 in 2014, but in a game where almost every one is picking Utah, it is key for the team to not get overconfident and instead let its on-field play do the talking in proving that it belongs in the Top-25 conversation.
Robert Jackson is the cross platform sports and weather producer for ksl.com and KSL-TV. He has covered the Utes for KSL since 2008. You can catch him and co-host Brian Swinney Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7-9 p.m. on the Ute Sports Report 1320 KFAN.