Washington State will be seeking to take a step closer to winning the Pac-12 North, while Utah will be fighting to get bowl eligibility when the two teams clash on Saturday.
The Utes (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) snapped a four-game losing streak with a 48-17 victory over UCLA. Utah needs a victory in one of its final three games to reach a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season. The Utes are one of four Pac-12 teams that can become bowl eligible with a win this week.
The No. 19 Cougars (8-2, 4-2) won all seven of their home games this season, finishing off the perfect mark with a 24-21 victory over Stanford. Washington State went undefeated at home for the first time since 2003 and set a single-season record for home wins. More importantly, the Cougars kept their divisional title hopes alive for at least another week.
Washington State has a two-game winning streak in the all-time series, which is tied 7-7. The Cougars rallied for a 28-27 win in Salt Lake City in 2014 for their most recent victory over the Utes.
Washington State at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 11 at 5:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Washington State – 1
Three Things to Watch
1. How will Luke Falk do in his homecoming?
Falk (above, right) is in a much different spot returning to his home state than when he graduated from Logan High School in northern Utah. Falk walked on at Washington State after receiving virtually no recruiting attention or scholarship offers. He quickly turned into a major success story for the Cougars.
Falk will end his career in Pullman as the Pac-12's career passing yards leader. The senior claimed that record from former Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion after throwing for 337 yards and two touchdowns against Stanford. He currently has 13,806 career passing yards, ahead of Mannion's 13,600 yards.
He isn't done chasing records, either. Falk needs just two more touchdown passes to pass former USC quarterback Matt Barkley as the Pac-12 leader in career touchdown passes. He has thrown 115 so far, ranking second behind Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield among active FBS quarterbacks.
Falk's 13,806 passing yards are the ninth most in FBS history. He has 28 300-yard passing games and 26 career wins — both school records at Washington State.
2. Is Utah's offense finally back on track?
During Utah's four-game slide, the Utes reverted to old habits on offense. They sputtered in the red zone and struggled to convert third downs to extend drives. None of those problems surfaced against UCLA.
The Utes gashed the Bruins for 506 total yards. They totaled 24 first downs and were 7-of-14 on third down. Utah also went 5-for-5 in the red zone, scoring four touchdowns.
This new-found potency manifested itself in the third quarter when the Utes scored on their first three second-half drives. Utah used chunk plays to move down the field quickly, averaging 14.6 yards per play on those three drives. Troy McCormick set the tone with a 75-yard touchdown catch on the first play of the third quarter.
Utah averaged just 21.4 points and 361.6 yards on offense in the team's first five Pac-12 games. The Utes eclipsed 400 total yards in only one of those games.
3. Will the run game be a factor for either team?
One area where Utah flourished against UCLA was the run game. Zack Moss totaled a career-high 153 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. Tyler Huntley added 93 yards on the ground on 18 carries. As a team, the Utes matched their season-best rushing output, finishing with 272 yards. Utah combined for just 201 total rushing yards in losses to Arizona State and Oregon.
Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham hopes this is a sign that Utah can hold its own on the ground with his team facing tough rushing defenses over the next two weeks. "The degree of difficulty definitely gets higher and we understand that,” Whittingham said. “The yards are going to be tougher to come by, but it was great to see us have a game where we ran the football like we need to.”
If one team knows how to stop the run, it is Washington State. The Cougars struggled to contain Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate two weeks ago, but then responded by holding Stanford running back Bryce Love to a season-low 69 yards on 15 carries. As a team, the Cardinal managed just 93 total rushing yards and were held to a season-low 198 yards of total offense.
“I thought our defense as a whole played good and ran to the ball real well,” Washington State head coach Mike Leach said. “But I thought our defensive front was disruptive all day and I thought that was one of the biggest things.”
This is no ordinary Washington State defense. The Cougars are second among Pac-12 teams in total defense (297.5 yards per game) and third in scoring defense (22.7 points per game). They allow just 136.4 rushing yards per game.
Utah has traditionally had trouble defending the air raid offense. With the struggles the Utes have had getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season, facing Luke Falk is not a good thing. Falk has the right tools to pick Utah's defense apart. Washington State has been inconsistent away from home, though, with only one road win (against Oregon). Rice-Eccles Stadium is a hostile environment. The Cougars will likely experience some struggles, but they can do just enough to pull away late.
Prediction: Washington State 27, Utah 24
— 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.