Utes slowed down Caleb Williams. Can they do the same to Washington’s Michael Penix Jr.?
Can the Utes limit Washington’s star quarterback like they did against USC, or will it be a repeat of the struggles against Oregon?
Utah’s 55-3 win over Arizona State was something of a “reset,” according to coach Kyle Whittingham.
The Utes bounced back from a 35-6 drubbing at the hands of Oregon two weeks ago and had a “get right” game against the Sun Devils, who had an injury-riddled offensive line and were down to their fourth-string quarterback. Most of Utah’s starters hit the bench in the early fourth quarter last Saturday.
“He’s very mobile in the pocket. He’s got great pocket presence. He can sense the rush. He does a great job, like all really good quarterbacks, of keeping his eyes downfield while he’s on the move.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on Washington QB Michael Penix Jr.
Utah didn’t have to exert itself too much against Arizona State, and largely escaped the game injury-free, save for running back Ja’Quinden Jackson, who had an Arizona State player land on top of his nagging hurt ankle and is questionable for the Washington contest (though if we know anything about Jackson, he’ll try to gut through it).
While Utah hit cruise control, last week Washington was in a track meet at USC. The Huskies won an emotional 52-42 contest in which both sides left everything out on the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was sensational as usual, throwing for 256 yards and two touchdowns with one interception on 74% accuracy, but running back Dillon Johnson stole the show, rushing for 256 yards and four scores. Following the dismal defensive performance, USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch was fired.
Utah will have its hands full with the Heisman-contending quarterback, who is leading the nation’s most prolific passing offense.
Penix Jr. has thrown for 3,201 yards, tops in the nation, and the Huskies are throwing for an astounding 383.1 yards per game and averaging 41.7 points per contest. The left-handed quarterback has a big arm — he can beat you deep — and is accurate. He’s deft at avoiding the pass rush, too.
“He’s very mobile in the pocket. He’s got great pocket presence. He can sense the rush. He does a great job, like all really good quarterbacks, of keeping his eyes downfield while he’s on the move. Certainly would rather throw it than tuck it and run, although he’s very capable of doing that,” Whittingham said.
Combined, Penix’s top two targets, Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk, have bested Utah’s total receiving yards on the season. Odunze has 989 yards and seven touchdowns on 56 catches, while Polk has 888 yards and eight scores on 51 receptions.
Utah is batting .500 when facing elite quarterbacks this season. The Utes slowed down Caleb Williams, holding USC to zero points on their six consecutive drives, but struggled against Bo Nix and Oregon as Nix got the ball out fast and the Ducks’ offensive line dominated.
Whittingham says Washington’s offensive line is “probably the best offensive line we’ve faced to this point.”
While the “flashy” matchup will be Washington’s receivers vs. Utah’s secondary, the big priority, as always, is the trenches for Whittingham.
“Pass defense starts at the line of scrimmage. It’s not just on the secondary. The defensive front has to get pressure and not let the quarterback get comfortable,” Whittingham said.
Utah certainly did not let Arizona State quarterback Jacob Conover get comfortable for a minute last week, limiting the Sun Devils to 40 passing yards and piling up four sacks.
Interestingly enough, Arizona State took Washington down to the wire in Seattle on Oct. 21 before the Huskies won the game with a pick-six.
“The big deal in that game, which kept things very tight, was the four turnovers by the Huskies,” Whittingham said.
Defensive end Jonah Elliss, who is tied for No. 1 in the nation with 12 total sacks, will have a matchup to watch against talented Washington offensive tackles Roger Rosengarten and Troy Fautanu.
It’s strength against strength — Utah’s defense is No. 11 in total sacks, while Washington’s offensive line is No. 3 in fewest sacks allowed.
Utah certainly isn’t counting out running back Johnson, but Whittingham expects the game to be won or lost through the air.
“The thing that stands out obviously is the quarterback and the throw game. I mean, they’re leading the nation throwing the football, got an outstanding running back as well, although their focus is throwing the ball and they do it better than anybody in the country,” Whittingham said.
Utah’s secondary is in for a challenge keeping up with Washington’s speedy receivers, but Whittingham has confidence in Zemaiah Vaughn, Miles Battle, JaTravis Broughton, Tao Johnson and Smith Snowden at cornerback, along with Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki at safety.
“They’ve played well though so far this year,” Whittingham said of the secondary. “Very consistent. ... They’ve been very steady this year. But again, a lot of that is due to the pass rush.”
Battle said the Utes went back to the basics against Arizona State, playing a lot of man coverage, and have been locking in on film.
“You just got to get back to the basics, our fundamentals. I think we got really good coaches that teach us really good techniques for man coverage,” Battle said. “We just got to give our best foot forward and let the chips fall where they may.”
Washington ranks No. 99 in total defense, allowing 413 yards per game — 269.9 passing yards and 143.1 rushing yards.
Coming off of a 55-point explosion in which Bryson Barnes threw for 161 yards and four touchdowns and Utah’s running backs combined for 352 yards and three scores, the Utes will need to score plenty of points to keep pace with the Huskies.
Can that offense carry over against Washington?
“What we’re pleased with was this past week is just the preparation, the effort, the passion, the energy that was all manifest on Saturday and so hopefully that carries over. We need that to carry over because like I said, when you go on the road to play a team of this caliber, good isn’t good enough. You got to be great,” Whittingham said.
Husky Stadium is expected to be rocking on Saturday — the 70,083-seat venue is sold out — as No. 5 Washington battles No. 18 Utah in a November game that has a lot at stake.
Utes on the air
No. 18 Utah (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12)
at No. 5 Washington (9-0, 6-0 Pac-12)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM
For Washington (9-0, 6-0 Pac-12), which is No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings, it’s as big of a regular-season game as Seattle has seen in seven years. The 2016 Huskies, led by quarterback Jake Browning, were the last Pac-12 team to make it to the CFP, and the Penix Jr.-led Huskies are vying to be the final Pac-12 team ever to make the Playoff. While a one-loss Pac-12 champion could get in to this year’s edition of the Playoff, the Huskies are trying to leave nothing to chance and go undefeated in the regular season for the first time since 1991.
Utah (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12), meanwhile, is down to its last gasp in the Pac-12 race. The Utes are still alive, but need to win out and have some results out of their control go their way to get back to the Pac-12 championship game for the third season in a row.
Winning in Seattle would be a big first step.
“We got a big challenge this week on the road against No. 5 team in the country and we got to be at our best. We can’t just play good, we got to play great,” Whittingham said.