Both Utah and Washington State find themselves in similar positions as the two teams clash on Saturday. Both teams are looking to bounce back from disappointing losses in their respective Pac-12 openers.
The Utes (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12) fell flat on offense for a second consecutive week in a 21-7 loss to Washington two weeks ago. Utah has one of the nation's best defenses, but — once again — is finding it tough to finish drives and generate points at critical times.
The Cougars (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) lost 39-36 to USC after Trojan defensive end Jay Tufele blocked a potential tying field goal with 1:41 left. Washington State took a 30-17 lead on the opening drive of the third quarter but managed just six points the rest of the way. The Cougars secondary gave up several costly penalties and big plays to open the door for a Trojans rally.
Washington State leads the all-time series 8-7 and has won three straight games against Utah. The Utes last beat the Cougars in 2012 and haven't won in Pullman since 2011.
Utah at Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 29 at 6 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Network
Spread: Utah -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Utah finish drives?
Producing points is once again a concern for Utah's offense this season. The Utes have generated a single offensive touchdown in each of their last two games. It isn't going to get any easier against a Washington State defense that ranks second in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (102.3 ypg), third in passing defense (163.5 ypg) and second in total defense (265.8 ypg).
Utah's troubles reached their zenith in the fourth quarter against Washington. The Utes began all three fourth-quarter possessions inside the Huskies' 35-yard line. All three times, they turned the ball over on downs. Utah went just 1-of-3 in the red zone. The Utes could not overcome three turnovers and multiple dropped passes.
A lack of reliable options among the receivers is preventing Utah's passing game from taking a step forward. Britain Covey is the only receiver with more than 100 receiving yards through the first three games. Covey has totaled 262 yards on 23 catches. The No. 2 receiver, Jaylen Dixon, has 90 yards on three catches.
2. Gardner Minshew vs Utah's secondary
Defending Mike Leach's Air Raid offense always seems to be a chore for the Utes. If anyone expected it to get easier once Luke Falk graduated, they haven't seen Minshew in action.
Minshew, a graduate transfer from East Carolina, seems tailor-made for the Air Raid. The senior has run the offense with an unexpected level of confidence and precision. Through four games, Minshew has racked up 1,547 yards and 11 touchdowns while completing 71 percent of his passes. He leads the Pac-12 in total passing yards and passing yards per game (386.8).
Still, Utah has reason to hope it can keep Minshew from accumulating video game-type stats through the air on Saturday. The Utes lead the nation in pass efficiency defense (75.62), opponent passing yards (93.0 ypg), total defense (204.7 ypg), and scoring defense (12.3 ppg).
3. Who will win the turnover battle?
Utah coughed up seven turnovers en route to a 33-25 loss to Washington State last season. Those takeaways led to 20 points for the Cougars. The Utes turned the ball over on three of their first four possessions of the game — all in the first quarter. Utah ultimately finished the season with a minus-5 turnover margin.
Turnovers also cost the Utes in their last trip to Pullman in 2013. Washington State ultimately won 49-37 after scoring on a pair of interception returns to take a 21-0 first-quarter lead.
Going into this latest matchup in the series, the turnover stats favor the Cougars to a great degree. Washington State is fifth among Pac-12 teams with a plus-1 turnover margin. Utah is dead last in the league with a minus-6 turnover margin.
This game could end up being a low-scoring battle, which is uncharacteristic of games involving Washington State. Utah boasts an elite defense, leading the nation in several categories. The Cougars are no slouch on that side of the ball either. It will come down to how well both offenses can perform. Washington State will find it tough to air it out against Utah's secondary and doesn't have enough of a run threat to test the Utes. Look for Utah's losing streak in the series to end.
Prediction: Utah 20, Washington State 17
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of @WSUCougFB)