Utah and Washington State are both at a crossroads entering their Pac-12 game on Saturday.
The Utes (1-2) ended non-conference play with uncharacteristic back-to-back losses. Utah rallied from a 14-point deficit against San Diego State but ultimately came up short in a 33-31 triple-overtime loss last weekend. A switch at quarterback gave the Utes a spark in the fourth quarter, but Jadon Redding's missed field goal in the second overtime and an incomplete two-point pass in the third overtime ultimately short-circuited Utah's chances to escape with its second win of the season.
The Cougars (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) squandered a double-digit for the fourth time in seven games since Nick Rolovich became head coach, falling to USC 45-14 last weekend. Washington State fell apart in the second half after backup quarterback Jaxson Dart came off the bench to rally the Trojans. The Cougars did not cross midfield in the second half until their final drive. They turned the ball over on three drives and went three-and-out on four others after halftime.
The all-time series is knotted up at 9-9. Utah has won two straight over Washington State. The Utes closed out the 2020 season with a 45-28 victory over the Cougars after overcoming a 21-point halftime deficit.
Washington State at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 25 at 2:30 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Utah -14.5
When Washington State Has the Ball
Things could get dicey if Jayden de Laura is unable to play for the Cougars on Saturday. De Laura, a sophomore quarterback, injured his left leg late in the first half against USC. He played a few snaps in the second half while wearing a leg brace before heading to the bench for good. When de Laura was in the game, Washington State jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Without him, the Cougars' offense sputtered and mustered just 87 total yards.
Getting Max Borghi more involved could be a big key for Washington State. Utah has struggled to contain the run in each of its last two games. Borghi ran for 95 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries against the Utes last season. He has tallied 217 yards and a pair of touchdowns while averaging 5.9 yards per carry in his first three games.
Calvin Jackson Jr. and Travell Harris will be the main targets for whoever lines up behind center on Saturday. Jackson had his best game of the season against USC, finishing with a career-high 94 yards on eight catches. He is on the cusp of having his first 100-yard game as a receiver. Harris added seven catches for 49 yards. He tallied 340 receiving yards in four games last season and is capable of being a dangerous playmaker.
When Utah Has the Ball
Cameron Rising will be Utah's starting quarterback going forward after Charlie Brewer left the program on Tuesday. Rising replaced Brewer atop the depth chart this week and Brewer decided to hit the road rather than back up the redshirt sophomore.
Rising saw his first significant action of the season after Brewer was benched late in the third quarter against San Diego State. He responded by rallying the Utes from a two-touchdown deficit to force overtime. While Utah ultimately fell short in its comeback, Rising showed a dynamic playmaking ability against a good defense. He threw for 153 yards and three touchdowns and added 46 yards on five carries. Britain Covey was Rising's favorite target, making eight catches for 46 yards. Covey also returned a punt 80 yards for Utah's first touchdown of the game.
The Utes are also more settled in the backfield now. Micah Bernard is the No. 1 back and T.J. Pledger is the No. 2 after Utah split carries between those two, Tavion Thomas, and Chris Curry during non-conference play. Bernard has 293 all-purpose yards through three games. His pass-catching abilities, blocking, and speed opened the door for him to rise to the top in a crowded backfield.
Utah looked like a different team once head coach Kyle Whittingham made a switch at quarterback. The Utes played with more confidence and fire with Rising at the controls. That's bad news for Washington State. The Cougars have blown double-digit leads in two of their three games to date. They won't get that chance against Utah. The Utes will be looking to vent some pent-up frustrations from back-to-back losses, and it could get ugly for Wazzu.
Prediction: Utah 38, Washington State 20
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– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.