Dick Harmon: Cougars have chance for credibility, Utes look to avoid 0-5 start in Pac-12

Cougars seek credibility against TCU

Published: Thursday, Oct. 8 2015 6:39 p.m. MDT

Kyle Whittingham will need his offense to cut down on turnovers and hold the ball against the Beavers in order to get a win in the Pac-12.   (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Kyle Whittingham will need his offense to cut down on turnovers and hold the ball against the Beavers in order to get a win in the Pac-12. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)


The Cougars and Utes have to stop jackpotting around.

The Utes are on the verge of going 0-5 in the Pac-12 if they don't defeat Oregon State Saturday in Rice-Eccles Stadium. Just thinking about that is astounding.

BYU, a team that's ripped off a five-game win streak against weak opponents, has a final chance to validate the notion that the Cougars are an improved, decent football team, and Riley Nelson is for real.

It's that simple folks. This weekend looms huge for these two squads, their coaching staffs and fans.

Going 0-5 in the Pac-12 in Utah's first season in its Golden Parachute entry into a BCS league does a disservice to its former non-BCS brothers. No matter the circumstances, it doesn't look right and confirms criticism of many there is a big chasm between those who belong in automatic qualifying leagues and those who don't.

Gary Patterson nnd the Horned Frogs have owned the series against BYU and Bronco Mendenhall recently.   (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Gary Patterson nnd the Horned Frogs have owned the series against BYU and Bronco Mendenhall recently. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Of course, that is unfair. Utah has had some horrendous misfortune at quarterback and has been caught with a sliver of depth at running back and has protection issues — all unusual for the double-BCS-bowl winner.

It's not all one guy, or a coordinator or Ute blocker. It's a village.

"At times (quarterback Jon) Hays holds the ball too long, at times the offensive line has had breakdowns, at times it's been the blocking," said coach Kyle Whittingham.

"It's been the running backs missing blitz pickups. The tight ends are also involved, and the receivers are also involved if they run incorrect routes and there is no one open, that can be a factor."

The Cougars are 6-2 but have not defeated a team with a winning record. The closest the Cougars came was a one-point loss in Austin to a 4-2 Texas team that has been ranked.

BYU's credibility at 6-2? It is all on the line. A quality independent? Friday helps with the answer.

Now comes speedy, tough, mean and talented Big 12-bound TCU.

"We've tried to liken it as much as we could to Texas, Ole Miss and Central Florida," said Bronco Mendenhall. "Teams we thought were fast as well. Those games are in the past but just to say that we have faced fast teams. This offense's approach is different. And it is difficult. We will put that message across to our players that the challenge is a difficult challenge.

"And it is done with fast players and physical players and so that is going to require a very high level of preparation."

BYU's opponents are a combined 21-35, a .375 winning percentage. That isn't very good competition. That's why playing and defeating a 5-2 Horned Frog team Friday night is so important for Cougar credibility. Plus, its on ESPN, the Mother Ship. And, it's in Cowboy Stadium — a huge stage.

Utah, at 3-4, needs three more wins for bowl eligibility. The Ute record comes against foes with a respectable 36-15 mark, or a .706 win percentage.

The Utes have taken a tougher bite than the Cougars this season with higher risks and stakes.

But when everything winds down, will Utah's main claim to fame this season be a 44-point win over the Cougars?

Will BYU's main claim to fame be that it led Utah and Texas before losing? That's why on Friday, the Cougars critically need a win over TCU. Utah desperately needs to defeat a 2-5 OSU team that lost its opener to Sacramento State.

The Cougars have had a sad-sack series of late with the Frogs. They've been dominated. They've been taken to the shed even with the programs' winningest quarterback Max Hall, best tight end Dennis Pitta and career running back Harvey Unga.

So, is Nelson going to go into Texas and lead the Cougars to victory? He's facing Gary Patterson's defense, and Patterson is a guy who will dissect every sway of Nelson's shoelaces the past five games and have an answer for it.

Utah faces an OSU offense that scored 21 points, plus a Nelson pick six (28) on BYU's defense that is ranked 32nd nationally. The Beavers can pass the ball and did so against a Cougar pass defense ranked 51st. Utah's pass defense is ranked 75th (disparity in competition should be noted).

In other words, if Utah can't find some firepower and avoid turnovers, OSU's offense is capable of scoring if Kalani Sitake's defense can't take a break and rest on the sidelines. Can Utah's offense give Sitake that?

BYU's defense has been stout all year, but TCU is averaging 44 points a game, albeit against the likes of Louisiana-Monroe, Portland State and New Mexico.

Riley Nelson has been spectacular in BYU's five-game win streak. He's made defenses look inept. A guy with questionable arm strength has a very impressive 174.46 pass efficiency rating. But can he run against TCU? To say Utah's offensive coordinator Norm Chow has had a challenging first year is akin to saying UCLA's Rick Neuheisel can't run for mayor of Westwood.

Hays didn't ask for the grief he's getting. With teams stacking the box, they're taking away his single-barrel run threat and daring him to beat them with his arm. He is 53 of 92 with three TDs and seven interceptions for 630 yards. Hays' pass rating is 110.

Can Hays do more against OSU's defense than Beaver freshman quarterback Sean Mannion against the Utes with his 130 rating on 1,964 yards with nine TDs and 10 picks?

Well, Hays needs to. He faces a far tougher defense in practice every day.

And BYU's Nelson and his nifty legs? He'd better be Tim Tebow incarnate Friday night.

BYU has a chance to prove itself. Utah gets an opportunity to defeat a Pac-12 team that the Cougars have already dispatched.

Big? Very big weekend, Halloween candy aside.

This week's picks:

Notre Dame 35, Navy 17: The Fighting Irish are a few plays away from getting ranked until USC exposed some weaknesses others could not. The Golden Domers return to winning on Saturday.

California 33, UCLA 21: The Bears showed a little fur against Utah last week and the Bruins are a team on the edge of imploding.

Washington 28, Arizona 14: Steve Sarkisian's multi-faceted offense is good enough to hide some defensive warts. Huskies roll.

Oregon 44, Washington State 14: The only question is what Nike outfit the Ducks will quack with.

Stanford 34, USC 24: Game of the week in the Pac-12. Look for Andrew Luck to dice up the Trojans.

Arizona State 38, Colorado 10: Is there a sorrier Pac-12 team than the Golden Buffs? The Sun Devils will romp over the rookie in the league.

Oregon State 21, Utah 20: One has an offense, the other needs to keep defenses from loading the box with an unresolved QB threat. If the Beavers can patiently hold on and gain turnovers from the Utes, they have enough offensive firepower to get the job done against a tough but tiring Ute defense.

TCU 28, BYU 20: The Frogs will take Riley Nelson's legs away and dare him to beat them over the top like SMU and Baylor did. Fail. Cougars cannot afford any turnovers Friday night.

Last week 5-4, 48-17 overall (.738)

email: dharmon@desnews.com

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