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Utes will have hands full against Washington State’s vaunted ‘Air Raid’ attack

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Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon (18) throws a pass during the first half of WSU’s game against Houston, Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, in Houston.

Michael Wyke, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — As deep as Washington State coach Mike Leach can be on a variety of topics, he offered a relatively blunt assessment of last week’s improbable 67-63 loss to UCLA.

“Well, the first half we can beat anybody in the country and the second half we can’t beat anybody in the country. So it’s about as simple as that,” Leach said at his weekly press conference. “I mean we’re able to do what we set our mind to, but we have to be able to do it for 60 minutes and right now we haven’t proven to be a team that can do it for 60 minutes.”

Washington State led UCLA 35-17 at halftime and 49-17 late in the third quarter before things got ugly. The previously winless Bruins prevailed by outscoring the Cougars 50-14 over the final 18:48.

At 3-1 overall and 0-1 in Pac-12 play, Leach said his team has got to move on with a sense of urgency and determination to improve.

Offensively, though, there’s not much room to get better. Washington State racked up 720 yards of offense in the setback. Quarterback Anthony Gordon threw a Pac-12-record nine touchdown passes as the Cougars amassed 570 yards in the air.

“They do it better than anybody in the country as far as what they do — throwing the football. Year in and year out, wherever Mike Leach is coaching they are going to be near the top in the country in throwing the ball.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

“It was a weird game. I stayed up until it was over,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said as the 19th-ranked Utes (3-1, 0-1) prepare for Saturday’s game against Washington State at Rice-Eccles Stadium. “To have nine touchdown passes, score 63 points and lose, is just really weird. Things just happen.”

While crediting UCLA for playing well and continually answering, Whittingham looked ahead to the challenge of defending Leach’s famed “Air Raid” offense.

“They do it better than anybody in the country as far as what they do — throwing the football. Year in and year out, wherever Mike Leach is coaching they are going to be near the top in the country in throwing the ball,” Whittingham said. “His quarterback (Gordon) is leading the nation right now in passing yardage (1,894) and touchdown throws (21), so they are the antithesis of Air Force. The way Air Force is with the option and the run game, Washington State is to the throw game.”

As such, Whittingham noted there’s nothing Utah can do defensively that will surprise Leach and the Cougars.

“They’ve seen it all. It is going to boil down to tackling, covering and getting pressure on the passer. In a game like this, your best defense is your offense and controlling the ball on offense — which we are doing,” Whittingham continued. “Our offense is controlling the football, taking care of it and we are making first downs.”

The Utes had 27 at USC. Whittingham said controlling the football will come into play when it comes to slowing down Washington State’s offense. Specifically, taking care of the ball and keeping it away from the Cougars.

Utah’s secondary, though, had troubling defending USC’s receivers in Los Angeles. 

“They just made more plays than we did. We weren’t in position to make the plays. We weren’t defending with the right technique and right fundamentals,“ said cornerback Jaylon Johnson. “They made the plays and we didn’t.”

Now comes Washington State’s high-powered attack. Can Utah fix what was broken in the USC shortcoming?

“That’s the goal. We try to get better every week. We just came out and had a bad game, but we look forward to the challenge again and just getting better,” Johnson added.

Quarterback Tyler Huntley said success on offense is “just about doing your job.” He’s determined to lead the charge, citing the need to eliminate penalties (Utah had 16 last week) and improve in the red zone.

Huntley also noted the importance of getting Utah’s defense some rest this week, so they can play their best football.

Defensive end Bradlee Anae said the team’s mindset is to just move forward. The first step is the homecoming game against Washington State.

“I think for me as a player I’m not going to be able to move forward unless we get a win next,” Anae said. “So I’m going to come in and do whatever I can.”

EXTRA POINTS: Leach is 136-84 overall and 52-41 at Washington State — including four straight wins over Utah. ... Sophomore running back Max Borghi leads the Cougars in rushing with 325 yards. ... Five Washington State players already have 225 or more yards receiving — senior Brandon Arconado (352), senior Easop Winston, Jr. (348), junior Dezmon Patmon (290), junior Davontavean Martin (238) and sophomore Travell Harris (225). ... Junior linebacker Jahad Woods tops the Cougs with 36 tackles. ... WSU sophomore kicker Blake Mazza has yet to miss this season, making 28 PATs and five field goals.

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Washington State (3-1, 0-1) at No. 19 Utah (3-1, 0-1)

Rice-Eccles Stadium

Saturday, 8 p.m.

TV: FS1

Radio: ESPN 700AM