After rolling through their non-conference schedule a perfect 3-0, Utah now turns its sights to Pac-12 play. The Utes will welcome Washington State to Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday to kick off their conference slate. In preparation for the matchup, the Deseret News caught up with Britton Ransford — a publisher at WazzuWatch.com of Yahoo! Sports rivals network — to get the inside scoop on the Cougars.
1. Washington State got off to a slow start but is coming off a great performance against Oregon. What did it do differently in that game compared to its losses earlier in the season? What's the confidence level of Washington State after taking the Ducks to the wire? Do you foresee that performance being used as a spring-board for the rest of the season?
In Washington State's first two losses, they were unable to get all three phases on the same page. Against Rutgers, the offense was explosive but the defense couldn't stop anything, whereas against Nevada the defense played very well but the offense was unable to finish drives.
Coming off a game where the Cougars showed up in all three phases against Portland State really got them moving in the right direction heading into a big opportunity against the No. 2 team in the country. Something the staff has maintained is that they practice great every week, but during those first two weeks, they weren't able to translate their play on the practice field to the playing field, which they were able to do against Oregon.
Washington State's confidence level is peaking. They missed a few opportunities — a missed field goal and they coughed the ball up a few times — and a couple calls didn't go their way, but I think they believe they were the better team last Saturday night.
Whether (the Oregon) game, as emotional as it was, becomes a spring-board for the rest of the season is anyone's best guess. If they stay focused and, as Mike Leach says, take it one game at a time like they have the last two weeks, I think they'll be in good shape moving forward.
2. How does Washington State view Utah as an opponent? What is something Utah does well that will cause problems for the Cougars?
Lining the walls of Washington State's new football operation building is their team motto, "Respect Everyone, Fear No One," and I think that's the mantra they carry with them into every game. Utah is a great opponent — they know that. I think they believe this is a business trip, of sorts, and that they "owe them one," as several players have put it, after the 49-6 shellacking they took at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2012.
Utah does a lot of things well, but I think their balanced attack could spell some trouble for the Washington State defense. With the Utes boasting an improved receiving core and their ability to both run and pass effectively, it could cause problems for a young Washington State defense.
Another key aspect to watch in this game, in my opinion, will be special teams. While obviously a strength for Utah, the Cougars have struggled mightily in that department. Several missed field goals and some shaky punting has haunted Washington State at times this year, and with Kaelin Clay looking like the best returner in college football, they'll have to weigh the positives and negatives of kicking to him or giving up field position to keep the ball out of his hands.
3. What kind of system does Washington State run on defense? How does it plan on stopping Utah's balanced attack?
Washington State runs a base 3-4 defense that, at times, can be relatively multiple with some 4-3 mixed in and a cheetah package in passing situations. Defensive coordinator Mike Breske likes to dial up the blitzes and disrupt the quarterback into throwing under pressure. They will run both man and zone coverage in the secondary, depending on the situation.
I don't expect them to do many things different than they typically do. They'll make adjustments throughout the game, depending on what's working and what the Utah offense is able to do early. The biggest thing — and this is the case with any team — is they need to be able to put pressure on Utah quarterback Travis Wilson. The front seven, after a lackluster start to the season in which they recorded just four sacks, was much better against Oregon and quarterback Marcus Mariota last week, tallying seven sacks, led by Buck linebacker Ivan McLennan and defensive tackle Xavier Cooper, who each recorded a pair.
They also need to be much better in the secondary, which is filled with mostly freshmen and sophomores. While more athletic and possessing more speed, the secondary is inexperienced and they've been susceptible to the big play various times this season. They've made some personnel changes over the last few weeks and there appears to be some progress being made in that area.
This biggest thing is that they'll need to take away is either Wilson and the passing game or stack the box and take their chances in coverage, hoping to force the Utes to become rather one-dimensional. Easier said than done, I know.
4. What makes Connor Halliday and the Washington State offense so potent? What advantages should they have against the Ute defense?
It all starts with Halliday, who has steadily improved over the last nine games after a rocky start to last season. During that span, the Cougars' fifth-year senior has thrown for 3,700 yards, 32 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His decision-making has been a complete 180 from a year ago, and he's comfortable within the offense, taking what the defense is giving him and not relying on his big arm to force things down the field.
The offensive line has been one of the strongest assets on this team and they're big, averaging over 300 pounds, which has allowed Halliday the time to go through his progressions. It also helps that he has one of the best receiving corps in the country.
The Cougars are able to rotate eight receivers in throughout the game without losing production which, with fresh legs throughout the game, could pose problems for the Utah secondary. You'll hear the names Vince Mayle, River Cracraft, Isiah Myers and Dom Williams a lot on Saturday, though Halliday will spread the ball around to double-digit pass catchers.
The offense won't run the ball much, they typically pass-to-run with screens, swing passes and jets. The running backs — Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow — are also heavily involved in the passing game, though they've steadily improved on the ground through four games.
Overall, Halliday and the Washington State offense should be able to move the ball well, as they appear to be clicking on all cylinders at the right time. Whether they can turn those yards into points, however, has been the biggest question this year.
5. What does Washington State have to do to get a victory Saturday?
Most importantly, the Cougars will have to win the turnover battle. That begins with Halliday taking care of the ball, which, for the most part over the last two games, he has. On the flip side, the Washington State defense has been hard-pressed to force takeaways. In order for Washington State to win in Utah's hostile environment, I think they'll have to win the turnover battle, first and foremost.
Also, as I alluded to above, the Washington State offense struggled early in the season inside the red zone. Their inability to capitalize inside the 20-yard line haunted them in the losses to Rutgers and Nevada, however they've improved in that area over the last two games. They'll be able to move the ball, in my opinion, but if they want to get out of Salt Lake City with a win, they'll need to continue to be better in that area.