A potential Pac-12 Championship Game preview is on tap on Saturday afternoon in Salt Lake City, as Utah hosts undefeated Washington in one of three matchups featuring ranked teams in Week 9.
The Huskies are positioned for a run at a playoff spot, sitting No. 4 in the latest Associated Press poll and one week away from the first set of rankings from the playoff committee. Of course, Washington still has plenty of remaining hurdles on the schedule, but coach Chris Petersen has brought significant improvement to this program in just his third year on the job in Seattle. Barring a surprise or major shake up in the rankings, the Huskies are the Pac-12’s best bet to reach the playoff. This team has cruised to a 7-0 start behind a balanced (and improving) offense, while the defense continues to make its case as the best in the Pac-12. Only one of Washington’s victories was decided by 24 points or less (an overtime win at Arizona), and Petersen’s team thoroughly dominated Stanford and Oregon by a combined score of 114-27.
While all of the attention in the Pac-12 has been focused on Washington and the downfall of Stanford and Oregon this year, Utah quietly continues to impress under coach Kyle Whittingham. The Utes tied for the Pac-12 South division title last year, losing the tiebreaker after a head-to-head defeat against USC. Utah is tied with Colorado at 4-1 in league play so far in 2016, adding extra importance to the Nov. 26 showdown against the Buffaloes in Boulder. Junior college recruit (and former Washington signal-caller) Troy Williams has provided a spark to the passing game, while running back Joe Williams has returned from an early-season retirement to save a rushing attack that was hit hard by injuries. And as usual, Utah boasts one of the Pac-12’s top defenses. The Utes limit opponents to 24 points a game. Utah’s only loss in 2016 was a 28-23 defeat at California, and the Utes have won four games by a touchdown or less.
Washington holds an 8-1 series edge over Utah. The Huskies are 1-0 in matchups against the Utes in Salt Lake City. These two teams have only played three times since 1979.
Washington at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 29 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Washington -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Joe Williams Against Washington’s Defense
The return of Utah running back Joe Williams is one of the best storylines from the Pac-12’s 2016 season. The senior was held to 49 yards on 12 carries against Southern Utah and managed only 26 on 10 attempts against BYU in Week 2. Williams decided to retire following the second game but returned to the team after a rash of injuries hit the backfield prior to the game at Oregon State. Over the last two weeks, Williams has rushed for 511 yards and five touchdowns, averaging a whopping 11.5 yards per rush in last week’s win over UCLA. The Utes rank fifth in the Pac-12 by averaging 214.4 rushing yards per game but face a stiff test against Washington’s defense. The Huskies are holding opponents to 145.4 rushing yards per game and just 3.8 yards per carry. Standout rush end/linebacker Joe Mathis is sidelined with a foot injury, but the Huskies have a strong foundation in place in the front seven. Azeem Victor is one of the Pac-12’s top linebackers, with Greg Gaines, Vita Vea and Elijah Qualls anchoring a stout defensive line. Utah’s offensive line has also dealt with its share of injuries this year, but this unit seems to be jelling as the final stretch of the 2016 season approaches. The left side of the line is the strength of this unit, anchored by left tackle Garett Bolles and guard Isaac Asiata.
While quarterback Troy Williams has added more of a big-play element to the passing game, Utah is still a run-first offense and needs to stay out of third-and-long situations. Establishing the run also helps to open up play-action passes. In order to knock off the Huskies, the Utes have to win first downs and get Williams over 100 yards for the third consecutive game.
2. The Quarterbacks
As mentioned in the previous section, Troy Williams has provided a spark for Utah’s passing game. The Utes ranked 11th in the Pac-12 last season, averaging 180 yards per game. Through eight games in 2016, Utah ranks ninth with an average of 218.6 per contest. A deeper look at the numbers shows how much of an impact Williams has made in the passing game. Utah has connected 10 passing plays of 40 yards or more after only connecting on six all of last season. Through eight games this year, Williams has passed for 1,725 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for 145 yards and five scores on 68 attempts. This game is also personal for Williams. He started his career at Washington before transferring to Santa Monica College. Getting revenge against his former team is plenty of motivation for Williams, but this is not an easy matchup for Utah’s passing game. The Huskies rank third in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense and have allowed only five passing scores all year. Cornerback Sidney Jones is a lockdown cover option, while safety Budda Baker is an All-American candidate. With Washington likely to stack the box and force Utah’s passing game to win it, can Williams make enough throws (or plays with his legs) to keep the chains moving?
On the other sideline, Washington sophomore quarterback Jake Browning has emerged as a contender for the Heisman Trophy in his second year as the starter. Through seven games this season, Browning has completed 118 of 172 throws (68.6 percent) for 1,709 yards and 26 scores. The sophomore has tossed only two picks and ranks second among Pac-12 quarterbacks with seven passes of 40 yards or more. In addition to Browning’s development, a key reason for the improvement in Washington’s passing offense is the return of receiver John Ross from injury. After missing all of 2015 due to injury, Ross has added a big-play element to this offense (14.3 ypc and nine scores). Utah’s defense will counter with a solid pass rush (22 sacks) and a secondary that ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in efficiency defense. However, the Utes have two big injury concerns. Safety Marcus Williams – one of the Pac-12’s top defensive backs – did not play against UCLA and is likely out for Saturday’s game against Washington. Additionally, cornerback Dominique Hatfield left last week’s contest due to injury. Hatfield is listed on the depth chart for Saturday’s game, so the senior should be available for coach Kyle Whittingham’s defense. No opponent has found the right answers to stop Washington’s passing game this year. The Utes can counter with a strong front four and a secondary that has been opportunistic (14 picks). This matchup favors Browning, but Utah’s defense at home is allowing only 17.3 points a game.
3. Turnover Margin
Considering how dominant Washington has been this year, it should be no surprise the Huskies are a 10-point (or more) favorite in the odds this week. How can Utah close that gap on the scoreboard? Keep an eye on the turnover battle. Washington ranks first in the Pac-12 at plus-14, with only five lost turnovers this fall. Utah isn’t far behind at plus-eight and managed to overcome a minus-three margin in a 20-19 win against BYU in Week 2. The Utes have been plus-three in two games (Arizona and UCLA) and lead the Pac-12 with 22 forced takeaways. Washington has not posted a negative turnover margin in a conference game since Nov. 14, 2015 against Oregon State. In order to knock the Huskies from the ranks of the unbeaten, Utah has to win the turnover battle and force a couple of takeaways from a Washington team that has not lost more than one turnover in a game this year.
Strange things or upsets always happen on the road in conference play – especially when the home team (Utah) isn’t getting much respect from Vegas. Coach Kyle Whittingham can certainly use the lack of respect as a motivation angle for his team this week. However, the Utes shouldn’t need much motivation with the nation’s No. 4 team coming to town. The road environment in Salt Lake City and defense of Utah should give Washington its share of trouble early. However, quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin eventually settle and put together a few drives at the end of the first half. The Huskes have too much firepower on offense, and the defense keeps Joe Williams under wraps on the ground to take the victory.