‘He’s got a big arm and can extend plays’: Why Utah is wary of Washington State’s high-tempo offense, QB Cam Ward
This week, coach Kyle Whittingham and several players compared WSU’s up-tempo offense to USC — and Cougars quarterback Cameron Ward to Trojans QB Caleb Williams
While Utah did knock off USC in its most recent outing before a bye week, it’s not lost on the Utes that they surrendered 42 points and 556 yards in the process.
And it just so happens that No. 14 Utah’s next game, Thursday (8 p.m. MDT, FS1) at Martin Stadium, is against a Washington State team that has some similarities to USC.
“He’s kind of Caleb Williams. They’re both elusive. He has a great arm, too. He keeps their offense alive. He scrambles a lot. He makes great plays, good decisions.” — Utah defensive lineman Junior Tafuna of WSU quarterback Cam Ward
“Offensively, they’re very similar to the scheme we saw against the Trojans … which I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing for us,” Whittingham said. “There’s a lot of carryover. … It will be a test for our secondary.”
“They’re both tempo teams,” defensive lineman Junior Tafuna said of USC and WSU. “Playing USC definitely helps us because of how fast they move on the ball, how fast they get their plays off. USC really prepped us for this game.”
Ward, a transfer from Incarnate Word, is a dual-threat quarterback. He’s completed 175 of 275 passes for 1,962 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“He’s very similar to what we saw against (USC). He’s got a big arm and he can extend the plays. He’s hard to sack,” Whittingham said of Ward. “This guy is very similar and he can get himself out of jams. He does a nice job throwing the ball, close to 300 a game.”
Said Tafuna of Ward: “He’s kind of Caleb Williams. They’re both elusive. He has a great arm, too. He keeps their offense alive. He scrambles a lot. He makes great plays, good decisions.”
Defensive lineman Jonah Elliss agreed.
“He’s similar to (Williams). He’s elusive. It’s hard to get him down. I don’t think he’s as strong in the lower body so when we’ve got him I think we’ll be able to get him down,” he said. “Whereas USC’s quarterback, you get him and he’d throw guys off. He’s really similar to a lot of these athletic quarterbacks.”
However, the Cougars have scored only 24 points in their last two games, including a 24-10 loss at Oregon State on Oct. 15 before their bye week.
Meanwhile, the offensive line is in flux and WSU is looking for playmakers to step up.
Coach Jake Dickert is counting on wide receiver De’Zhaun Stribling, a 6-foot-3, 204-pound sophomore who has caught 28 passes for a team-high 359 yards and four touchdowns, to produce more by lining up more in the slot.
“We need to try and find a way to get our playmakers the ball as much as possible,” Dickert said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, moving Strib in. But I think there’s also a scheme emphasis of getting a big body in there. So we can work more of the middle of the field and we can work more down the field in the seam.”
For Utah’s defense, one of the priorities is to get pressure on Ward, like it did against USC’s Williams in the second half. The Utes sacked Williams three times over the final 30 minutes.
“The biggest thing is to get after the quarterback. I think that’s what happened in the second half against USC,” Tafuna said. “That’s what we need to take into this game as a defensive front — to get after the quarterback. He’s the heart of their offense. If we get after him, it should be a good day for us, a good day for Utah football.”
Elliss said WSU will try to wear out the Ute defense.
“They’re an explosive offense. They’re going to try to get us tired and then try to get big plays off of that,” he said. “We’ve just got to be prepared for that. They’re a fast-paced offense. Just like USC, we’re going to have to keep tempo with that. That’s something we struggled with so we’ve been working on it a lot in practice.”
Tafuna added that there’s been an emphasis on forcing turnovers and getting “the ball back for our offense.”
Utah’s defense struggled in the first half against USC before simplifying the playbook and rallying at intermission. The Utes stiffened in the second half, allowing just 14 points.
“Our offense was rolling. In the locker room, as a defense, a lot of the leaders stepped up and were like, ‘If we don’t pull our weight, we’re not going to make it,’” Elliss recalled. “Our playbook this week is a little bit smaller. … In the heat of the moment, we were messing it up. We shortened the playbook this week and I think it will be really good.”
Utah is hoping its second-half performance will carry over to both halves Thursday night in Pullman.
“The bye week was really good for us. It was a 10-day rest,” Elliss said. “A big win like that, the whole stadium storming the field, it’s a feeling that you love and want to keep repeating. Although we’re away, we’re still trying to get that feeling of winning and dominating.”
As for Washington State, Dickert wants to see his team bounce back strong against Utah.
“It’s disappointing heading into the bye week (with a loss), instead of … having some momentum,” he said after the setback at OSU. “I told them, ‘It doesn’t get easier.’ It’s really easy to be committed to the process when everything goes right. Now, we’re going to reveal who we all are.”
Utes on the air
No. 14 Utah (5-2, 3-1)
at Washington State (4-3, 1-3)
Thursday, 8 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700