Utah Utes football: Utah changing priorities to face Washington State's 'Air Raid'
SALT LAKE CITY — Throwing the ball is more than just a passing fancy for Mike Leach and the Washington State Cougars. They chuck it around pretty good. In last week’s 24-17 loss at Stanford, WSU’s offense racked up 401 yards in the air. The ground game wound up with a deficit, minus-16 yards.
Leach’s “Air Raid” is what it is. The Cougars rank eighth nationally in passing (332.1 ypg) and 124th rushing (33.5 ypg).
The imbalanced attack is the Utah Utes’ next task. Saturday’s kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“It’s a departure from pretty much every other week of the season where it’s usually stop the run first and then worry about getting after the quarterback,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “This week it’s the pass game first and foremost, which you have to address. The run is a secondary aspect of it. It’s unique to just about every other week of the season.”
Led by quarterback Jeff Tuel, who completed 43-of-60 passes against Stanford, and top receiver Marquess Wilson, the Cougars have skill at running the scheme.
“They just throw the ball pretty much all the time. That’s why they call it Air Raid. It’s a dangerous offense,” said Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. “But in a way, the way they spread the ball out is an extension of the run game — the screen plays and the quick throws — so in that aspect we have to stop the easy throws."
The Cougars are vulnerable to sacks, however. Tuel was dropped 10 times by Stanford.
“This is a week where we’ve got to have a pass rush and we’ve got to be able to get to the quarterback, bottom line,” Whittingham said.
Even so, Whittingham acknowledged that WSU plays with a lot of energy, has good schemes and is very sound in what it does. He considers Wilson as another in a long line of great receivers in the Pac-12.
“He’s a tremendous talent,” Whittingham said. “And he’s a guy that we’ve definitely got to account for.”
Utah linebacker Trevor Reilly, who was recruited by Leach to Texas Tech several years ago, knows that the coach is skilled at teaching his guys to read off of what the defense gives them.
“So it’ll be a big test for our defensive backs, corners and linebackers,” Reilly said.
Sitake, though, is confident the Utes will be up for the challenge.
“I feel real good about the way our guys are playing,” he said. “I feel good about our scheme, and we’ll see how it matches up.”
EXTRA POINTS: Utah took a 6-5 lead in the all-time series after winning last year’s game 30-27 in overtime in Pullman. The Cougars won the last meeting in Salt Lake City, prevailing 38-21 in 2000. Leach told reporters that the loss to Stanford was the “best game” his team has played this season. WSU senior linebacker Travis Long is fourth in the Pac-12 with 7.5 sacks. The Cougars are 25th in the nation with 21 sacks.
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