Tom Smart, Deseret News
PULLMAN, Wash. — The names are the same, but the matchup is very much different.
Today's clash between the Utes and Cougars is an all red affair. Nothing blue about it.
Utah closes out the road portion of its first Pac-12 season at Washington State. The Utes do so with three straight wins — all in conference play — and a determination to keep the good times rolling.
"We're ready," said star running back John White IV. "We're going to do it."
The Utes, he added, have had another good week of preparation.
After earning bowl eligibility with last Saturday's 31-6 victory over UCLA, the Utes (6-4) are one triumph away from clinching a ninth consecutive winning season. They can also even their Pac-12 record at 4-4.
Utah's upward climb followed a 34-10 setback to California in San Francisco on Oct. 22. The Utes responded with wins over Oregon State (27-8), Arizona (34-21) and the Bruins.
The streak has been accompanied by an absence of turnovers on offense. No interceptions. No fumbles.
Offensive coordinator Norm Chow credits quarterback Jon Hays for much of the turnaround. Hays is now 4-2 as the starter since replacing the injured Jordan Wynn.
"The guy deserves a ton of credit now. He manages the game. He doesn't make the mental errors," Chow said. "Obviously you've got to kind of do different things with the guy, but he deserves a medal for that."
So, too, do others, including White (1,191 yards rushing), the offensive line and a stingy defense that ranks among the Pac-12 and national elite.
All may be put to the test against a Washington State team coming off a dramatic 37-27 win over Arizona State. The Cougars (4-6), who have the Pac-12's reigning Offensive Player of the Week in freshman quarterback Connor Halliday, still have hopes of becoming bowl eligible. He passed for 494 yards and four touchdowns against the Sun Devils.
"They spread you out," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "They do a good job with their four wide receiver packages."
Strong safety Brian Blechen noted that WSU can't and won't be taken lightly.
"We always want a team's best shot because we expect the best from ourselves," Blechen said. "I think we can compete against any team we go against. So when we're clicking it doesn't really matter."
Utah's defense, particularly the line, has been successful applying pressure.
"They've been a strength of ours all season long and we anticipated that going into the year," Whittingham said, while noting the line has lived up to its billing. "Great defense starts at the line of scrimmage and those guys have done a nice job controlling the line of scrimmage most every game of the season."
Defensive end Joe Kruger considers depth Utah's greatest strength up front. The Utes, he explained, are able to rotate in a lot of guys.
The mass contributions have complimented the team's mantra to play with a lot of passion and energy.
"We expect that to continue," Whittingham said.
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