A pair of hopeful Pac-12 contenders look to rebound from disappointing losses
Both Utah and Washington State saw dreams of making a run to the College Football Playoff vanish into thin air with upset losses in their respective Pac-12 openers. Now the Utes and the Cougars both look to avoid carrying a two-game losing streak into October when they clash on Saturday.
An epic second-half meltdown in all three phases gave the Cougars (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) a shocking 67-63 loss to previously winless UCLA. The combined 130 points from the two teams set a Pac-12 single-game record. Washington State totaled 720 yards of offense – the second most for a single-game in school history – but could not overcome six turnovers that led to 29 points for the Bruins.
The No. 19 Utes (3-1, 0-1) had a short stay in the top 10 after falling flat in the Coliseum in a 30-23 loss to USC. Utah dominated the Trojans statistically. The Utes had a 457-381 edge in total yardage and held the ball for 38:12. Ultimately, a fumble inside the five-yard line late in the second quarter, a plethora of penalties, and an inability to prevent USC's wide receivers from making big plays doomed Utah.
Washington State leads the all-time series 9-7. The Cougars have had the upper hand against the Utes since Mike Leach came to Pullman. They have won four straight over Utah since a 49-6 defeat in Salt Lake City in 2012.
Washington State at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 28 at 10 p.m. ET
Spread: Utah -5.0
When Washington State Has the Ball
Taking care of the ball is sure to get a stronger emphasis in practices this week. The Cougars blew a 32-point third-quarter lead by shooting themselves in the foot on drive after drive late in the game. Four second-half fumbles fueled UCLA's comeback. Two occurred on Washington State's final two drives after they had stopped the Bruins on fourth down.
It took some luster away from another shining performance by Anthony Gordon, who has emerged as the latest potent passer in Pullman. Gordon threw for a school- and Pac-12-record nine touchdowns against UCLA and totaled 570 yards through the air on 41-of-61 passing. His passing yardage was the third-highest for a single game in school history. Gordon is the first Washington State quarterback to start a season with four straight 400-yard games.
Utah's biggest concern will be keeping Easop Winston, Brandon Arconado, and Dezmon Patmon from repeatedly stretching the field for chunk play receptions. Winston's fourth-quarter, 89-yard TD catch provided the game-winning points a year ago. The trio has combined for 990 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 68 total receptions.
The Cougars managed zero rushing yards against the Utes in 2018. This scenario isn't likely to repeat this time around with the emergence of Max Borghi in the backfield. Borghi already has two 100-yard games this season, giving Washington State's air raid offense a rare reliable running threat. Borghi is averaging 7.9 yards per carry.
When Utah Has the Ball
There's a good chance the Utes will be without leading rusher Zack Moss after he injured his shoulder against USC. Kyle Whittingham would not comment on Moss' status for Saturday's game other than to confirm that the injury is not a season-ending one. Still, that doesn't mean he will be available. Moss reportedly suffered an AC joint separation, which could mean a recovery time of 3-to-6 weeks based on the severity of the separation.
With Moss out, Utah will need other running backs in its backfield stable to step up and put in a Moss-like performance. Jordan Wilmore, a true freshman, is the No. 2 back and will likely get the first shot to get it done. Devin Brumfield likely earned a bigger role as well after turning in a career-high 63 yards on 10 carries against USC. Whittingham, in particular, liked Brumfield's ability to pick up blitzes and his blocking on passing plays.
Tyler Huntley will bear a greater playmaking burden with Moss on the sidelines. Huntley has shown a knack for accuracy and consistency to this point in the season. He currently ranks sixth in the FBS in completion percentage (76.2) and is third in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency (177.0). Huntley has completed at least 70 percent of his passes in four straight games, the longest such streak of his career. The senior has three straight 200-yard passing games.
As a team, Utah ranks fourth among FBS teams in completion percentage (76.9) and is 16th in team passing efficiency (173.52). The Utes are one of 14 FBS teams entering the week who have not thrown an interception yet.
Both teams are feeling desperate to get back on track after unexpected losses. Utah has struggled with defending the air raid in past seasons and, on paper, could get chewed up again. In reality, the Utes have less to fear from Washington State than usual. The Cougars can put up big numbers, but their defense isn't up to its usual standard. Coupled with an insane number of mistakes that allowed a bad UCLA team to rally for an epic comeback win, and you have a vulnerable-looking Washington State team. Utah will finally find a way to beat a set of Cougars not originating from Provo.
Prediction: Utah 34, Washington State 31
— 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.