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Can Utah’s offense afford to get into a shootout with Washington State?

By Josh Furlong, | Posted - Sep. 27, 2019 at 9:59 a.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — In a remarkable — maybe insane is a better way of putting it — way, Washington State managed to lose Saturday when up by 32 points late in the third quarter against a substandard UCLA program.

The Cougars put up 63 points and its starting quarterback, Anthony Gordon, threw for a record-breaking nine passing touchdowns in a loss. It was the first loss of the season for the Cougars, who average 499.5 yards per game (first in the nation) in the passing game and 52.8 points (fifth in the nation).

To put it simply, Washington State can score and they do it with a dynamite passing attack — the Air Raid offense. Under the direction of head coach Mike Leach, Washington State has been efficient and dangerously effective. Few teams can afford to get into a shootout with the Cougars and survive — even UCLA narrowly squeaked out a win in an uncharacteristically odd fashion.

But what about a team like No. 19 Utah, who struggled to contain a form of the Air Raid offense a week prior in a 30-23 loss to USC on the road? Can the Utes get into a shootout against the Cougars and hope to come out on the other end with a win?

Utah averages only 29.8 points per game and has yet to cross the 35-point barrier this season; their total yards per game of 443.8 is fewer than Washington State’s average passing yards. That’s not to say Utah’s offense isn’t capable of putting points on the board, it’s just that it hasn’t happened so far in 2019.

Utah cannot afford to get into a shootout and expect to win.

Still, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday at his weekly press conference that one of the best defenses against Washington State is a powerful offense.

“In a game like this, oftentimes your best defense is an offense; it's an offense that can control the ball, which we're doing,” Whittingham said. “Our offense is controlling the football, taking care of it, not turning it over.

Whittingham isn’t talking about scoring a large amount of points to outlast the Cougars — although that’s certainly a guaranteed way to win — he believes control of the football is key. Limit turnovers, move the chains and eat up the time of possession to limit how many opportunities the opponent can get.

“That will play into slowing down that offense as much or more than anything is our ability to control the football, take care of it, and keep it away from them. So that's part of a big part of the equation.”

So far this season, Utah has been effective in all the categories Whittingham outlined to beat the upcoming one-dimensional opponent. Utah has yet to throw an interception and has only lost two fumbles this season, and they rank seventh nationally in average time of possession (third, if looking at the total time of possession over the life of the season).

But playing keep away won’t win a game if the opponent can strike quickly and in a big way. Against the Trojans, Utah controlled the time of possession and kept the game close, but allowed a multitude of deep passes to ultimately doom their chances of a win. USC didn’t need a long time to score, and the Utes paid in the end.

Whittingham and his players hope to enter Saturday was a renewed purpose and overall better defensive effort. And despite their shortgivings last week, Utah is still the “hardest” challenge to face Washington State this season. The Cougars have yet to play a passing defense that has given up more than 300 yards on average in the passing game. Each of its non-FCS opponents are ranked lower than 120th out of 130 teams.

Utah has been much tougher on the season and gives up, on average, 222.8 yards per game, which ranks the Utes 60th in the country. That’s a massive step up for the Cougars, who have essentially passed for big numbers against the lower-level passing defenses.

The defense Utah will roll out Saturday, though, is not unlike anything Leach or his team’s personnel has seen to combat the Air Raid, Whittingham said.

“They've seen it all,” Whittingham said. “There's nothing that we're going to do defensively that's going to surprise them or do something they haven't seen before. They've seen it all. They've seen every imaginable way to try to defend them.

Assuming Utah can bounce back from last week and the defense can limit Washington State’s ability to get chuck plays and move the ball fast, Utah has a more favorable opportunity to score this week.

The Cougars, on average, gives up 28.8 points per game (82nd in the nation), 175.3 rushing yards per game (89th) and 248.8 passing yards per game (88th). That puts the Cougars’ defense on par with about Northern Illinois, statistically speaking in terms of former Utah opponents.

Should Utah abandon its pursuit of controlling the game clock and limiting the Air Raid attack on defense, Utah has at least a fighting chance on offense against a defense that allows its opponent a lot of room to score. A shootout is still not the desired outcome, but despite every intention to do as Whittingham suggested, it may be the team’s best option if things go South for the Utes.

Utah looks to avoid going 0-2 in conference play for the second-consecutive season as they welcome Washington State to Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday at 8 p.m. MDT. The game will be broadcast on FS1, though Dish Network and Sling subscribers will not be able to see the game due to a contract dispute.

Josh Furlong

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