The Pac-12 takes center stage on Saturday night, as Washington travels to Utah for one of the top games of Week 3 in the 2018 college football season. This is the conference opener for both teams, and while it’s early in the year, a rematch between the Huskies and the Utes in the Pac-12 Championship Game wouldn’t be a surprise.
Washington opened the 2018 season with a close loss to Auburn (21-16) in Atlanta. The Huskies rebounded in Week 2 with an easy win over North Dakota to enter Saturday’s game at 1-1 overall. The 2017 college football season was not a productive or successful one for the Pac-12. Washington was the preseason pick by most to win the league and have the best shot at making the CFB Playoff in 2018. While there’s a long way to go until December, it’s worth taking stock of where the Huskies stand going into Saturday night’s game. With one loss already, a second defeat would be tough – but not necessarily impossible – to earn a trip to the CFB Playoff. Essentially, coach Chris Petersen’s team likely has to win out the rest of the way to finish in the top four.
Coach Kyle Whittingham has transformed Utah’s program into a consistent winner in the Pac-12 and enters the 2018 season with a good opportunity to win its first South Division title. The Utes are off to a 2-0 start after wins against Weber State and Northern Illinois, and Saturday’s game versus Washington starts a critical stretch of games that includes a road trip to Washington State (Sept. 29) and a road contest at Stanford (Oct. 6). As usual, Whittingham has one of the Pac-12’s top defenses. However, after the first two games, it’s clear the offense is still a work in progress.
Washington holds a 10-1 series edge over Utah. The Huskies are 4-1 against the Utes in Pac-12 games. Utah’s lone win against Washington took place in 2015, as Whittingham’s team defeated the Huskies 34-23.
Washington at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 10 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Utah’s Offense
Utah’s offense averaged 29.5 points a game last season, but with seven starters back, improvement was expected in the second year under play-caller Troy Taylor. So far, the Utes are still trying to put the right pieces in place. Through two games, this unit is averaging 29 points a contest and 6.4 yards a play. Quarterback Tyler Huntley has passed for 565 yards and four touchdowns, and running back Zack Moss leads the way with 216 yards and two scores on the ground. While Moss’ numbers are solid, it’s worth mentioning 86 of his yards came on one play against Weber State. Subtract that total and Moss is averaging only four yards a rush, so there’s certainly room to improve there.
Outside of generating more consistency and overall production on the ground, Utah needs better play from its offensive line. This unit has surrendered eight sacks so far and will have its hands full against a tough Washington defense on Saturday. The Huskies feature one of the Pac-12’s top defensive lines, and the secondary – headlined by cornerback Byron Murphy and safety Taylor Rapp – is likely the best in the nation.
After a so-so performance against Northern Illinois last Saturday, can Utah’s offense find its rhythm against one of the top defenses in the nation? It’s not going to be easy, but Huntley had a good performance against the Huskies last season, and his mobility will be an asset against a strong defensive front. Receiver Britain Covey (15 receptions) is Huntley’s favorite target. But in order to win, the Utes need more out of their secondary weapons and better play in the trenches.
2. Washington’s Offensive Line
Just like Utah, Washington heads into Week 3 looking to gets its offensive line and run game on track. The Huskies suffered an early setback in the trenches after left tackle Trey Adams was ruled out indefinitely due to a back injury. While this unit hasn’t been subpar, there’s certainly room to improve. Washington is averaging 4.4 yards a carry and has allowed five sacks through two games. Center Nick Harris missed the matchup against North Dakota due to injury but could return for Saturday night’s trip to Salt Lake City.
Utah consistently ranks among the best in the Pac-12 on the defensive line, so it should be no surprise Whittingham and coordinator Morgan Scalley have a solid group already in place. Ends Bradlee Anae and Mika Tafua have combined for 3.5 tackles for a loss in 2018, with John Penisini, Leki Fotu, Pita Tonga and Hauati Pututau (all over 300 pounds) clogging the interior. Adding to the strength of the front seven is a standout group of linebackers, which includes converted safety Chase Hansen and senior Cody Barton.
Washington’s Myles Gaskin is among the top running backs in the nation but is off to a slow start in 2018. The senior has just 128 yards and a touchdown on 32 attempts, with backup Salvon Ahmed recording 80 yards on 11 carries. Gaskin’s sluggish production is partly due to the offensive line, but the tough matchup against Auburn in Week 1 certainly limited the upside of the ground game. However, on the road at Utah, the Huskies need more out of their offensive line and ground game to avoid a loss to the Utes.
3. Washington QB Jake Browning Against Utah’s Secondary
It’s a strength versus strength battle when Washington quarterback Jake Browning goes against Utah’s secondary on Saturday night. As we mentioned above, the concerns up front and the sluggish production from the ground game could only add to the pressure on Browning’s shoulders in Salt Lake City.
Through two games, Browning is completing 59.4 percent of his passes for 609 yards and three touchdowns. However, one preseason question mark about Washington’s passing game seems to be answered. The Huskies struggled to replace the big-play ability of John Ross at receiver last season, but Aaron Fuller, Ty Jones, Quinten Pounds and Chico McClatcher have stepped up through the first two contests.
Utah will counter Browning and Washington’s receivers with a secondary that has yet to give up a touchdown pass through two games and is allowing only 41.8 percent of passes to be completed. However, this is the toughest test for this secondary so far in the 2018 campaign. Cornerback Julian Blackmon is one of the Pac-12’s top defensive backs, and he’s joined by a pair of seniors (Corrion Ballard and Marquise Blair) at safety, with Jaylon Johnson (CB) and Javelin Guidry (nickel) rounding out the key contributors.
Regardless of how the offensive line and ground game performs, Washington’s passing game against Utah’s secondary is one of the must-see matchups on Saturday night.
The last two matchups between these two teams have been decided by seven points or less, so expect another close contest on Saturday night. While the CFB Playoff is still a long ways off, Washington has to win this game to keep its hopes alive. If the Huskies stumble, the Pac-12’s best hope at a bid would have two losses before the end of September. The breakdown of this game seems pretty simple: Which offense can generate enough points and have the most overall success on Saturday night? With two standout defenses in place, yards and points aren’t going to be easy to attain. The guess here is Washington’s offensive line steps up and Gaskin finds enough room to get on track, with Browning making a couple of plays in the fourth quarter to allow the Huskies to escape with a three-point win.