‘We approach every game like it’s a championship game’: No. 14 Utah can’t afford a slip-up at WSU
The Cougars opened the season 3-0, including a victory at Wisconsin, and it led Oregon in the second half at home back on Sept. 24.
Then came a bye week.
“We’ll have to play our best, no doubt about it. We’d love to keep that momentum heading into this game. We played with confidence on offense. Hopefully, we can build upon that.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
As the regular season heads down the stretch, the Utes aren’t taking anything for granted. A year ago, at the same point of the season, they lost a game in the Pacific Northwest at Oregon State.
No. 14 Utah visits Washington State Thursday (8 p.m. MDT, FS1) at Martin Stadium.
“They’re always a great team. Washington State’s always been a team that gives us a good fight. They went toe-to-toe with Oregon and almost won that game. We can’t overlook those guys,” said wide receiver Devaughn Vele. “If we let that get to our heads, that’s when we get punched in the mouth.
“… We approach every game like it’s a championship game or we approach every game like we did against USC. Every game is monumental toward our goal of trying to make it to the Pac-12 championship.”
WSU opened the season 3-0, including a victory at Wisconsin, and led Oregon in the second half at home back on Sept. 24.
But the Ducks scored 29 fourth-quarter points to beat the Cougars 44-41.
After beating California, WSU has dropped two straight games to USC and Oregon State.
Against the Beavers, the Cougars gave up a season-high 203 rushing yards on 47 carries.
Washington State’s defense has had its moments this season and it’s struggled at times. It will face a tough challenge against the Utes offense, which is coming off a 43-42 win over USC.
In that game, quarterback Cam Rising threw for 415 yards and was responsible for five touchdowns; tight end Dalton Kincaid caught 16 passes for 243 yards and a TD weeks after tight end Brant Kuithe went down with a season-ending injury.
Cougar coach Jake Dickert knows his defense can’t let Kincaid get loose like he did against the Trojans.
“The guy just caught 16 passes for 200-plus yards. It’s amazing because at the end of the day, (Kuithe) was even better. Kuithe’s not playing anymore. I think it allows you to focus a little more on Kincaid and where he’s at and what he’s doing,” Dickert said. “But to flex out and be a mismatch for a corner, come back into the box and have the ability to kick out a D-end, then hand him the ball — I’ve seen Utah do that — the versatility and the skill set is next-level and he has a bright future.
“I don’t think you ‘shut down’ a guy like that but you’ve got to know where he’s at. And we’ve got to have an opportunity for our guys to make plays against him.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham figures WSU’s defense will focus on slowing down Kincaid.
“I know I would if I was the defensive coordinator. It would be the primary objective if you look at our tape, particularly our last game, and saw what he was able to accomplish and do something to say, ‘If you’re going to beat us, it’s got to be some other way than the tight end catching 16 balls.’ We’ll see what they have in mind,” he said. “Dalton’s a real talented kid. I don’t know that you can completely take him out of the game but I’m sure they’ll try to slow him down.”
If the Cougars focus on limiting Kincaid, that opens up an opportunity for the wide receivers to make plays.
“They’ve got to step their game up and make sure they’re getting open,” Rising said. “(Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig) has a great plan laid out for them. They’ve just got to take advantage of it.”
One of those receivers hoping to make an impact is Vele, who had five receptions for 62 yards and a touchdown against USC.
“Dalton is a heckuva player. Obviously, they’re going to game plan around him and make sure he doesn’t get the touches that he normally would get,” Vele said. “As receivers, we’ve got to understand that and exploit those weaknesses. If they’re doubling him, then that means we’re going to have one-on-one matchups and somebody’s going to be open.
“But we’ve got to make sure that we’re executing. We’ve got to make sure that when the ball is thrown our way, we catch the ball and that we’re running the right routes and blocking the right person.”
Whittingham is pleased with the way the offense has responded after the loss of Kuithe.
“Yeah, I think so, as evidenced by Dalton’s big day (against USC). That was by design. We knew he was going to have a big day. Not that big. But he was very much the focal point of most of the throw game,” he said.
“Devaughn Vele added his usual production and Money Parks caught a big one down the middle on a deep ball. Yeah, we’ve had some guys step up and pick up the slack for what we miss with Brant.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever really fill in the role that Brant had,” Kincaid said. “He’s a phenomenal and special player that you can’t really mimic, unless you look at (the Los Angeles Rams’) Cooper Kupp. I think we’re doing a good job of trying to fill the void of that and putting playmakers in position to make plays.”
Rising said the offense still miss Kuithe’s presence on the field.
“It’s never going to be easier. No. 80 is a difference-maker whenever you have a guy like that that can get open at will almost. He’s a phenomenal player but the guys are doing everything they can to continue to step up and fill that void.”
In the wake of a monumental win over USC, Whittingham wants his team to pick up where it left off against Washington State.
“We’ll have to play our best, no doubt about it,” he said. “We’d love to keep that momentum heading into this game. We played with confidence on offense. Hopefully, we can build upon that.”
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