Mike Leach will make you a good quarterback. He is an outstanding quarterback coach and also they are about 80-percent throw. So if a quarterback goes there, he is going to be throwing the ball like crazy. —Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has known Washington State counterpart, Mike Leach, for years. They get together at Pac-12 functions and on occasion when Leach is visiting family in the area.
“I would consider him a friend,” Whittingham said. “It’s not like we’ve gone on vacation together or anything like that, but I love being around him. He’s a great guy and we talk several times a year.”
Whittingham considers Leach both intelligent and personable.
“You could literally have conversations with him for hours and hours,” Whittingham said. “You do a lot of listening because he is doing most of the talking, which is fine with me because I am just the opposite.”
On Saturday, the BYU graduates will match wits at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Although Whittingham noted that Leach can be “outside the box” and “off the wall” away from the field, on it his teams can always be counted on to throw the ball and do so prolifically.
“Mike Leach will make you a good quarterback,” Whittingham said. “He is an outstanding quarterback coach and also they are about 80-percent throw. So if a quarterback goes there, he is going to be throwing the ball like crazy.”
Nobody’s done it like Logan High graduate Luke Falk. The Washington State senior is the Pac-12’s career passing leader with 13,801 yards. He’s thrown 115 touchdown passes for the Cougars over the past four seasons.
This year’s top targets include receivers James Williams (56 catches), Tavares Martin, Jr. (55) and Isaiah Johnson-Mack (50). Washington State leads the Pac-12 and ranks second in the nation in passing with 381.7 yards per game. The Cougars are 12th in rushing (85.7 ypg).
Despite the latter, Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley doesn’t believe they are necessarily one-dimensional. He’s seen improvement in their ability to run the ball when defenses are anticipating a pass.
“It’s a good offense. They play hard,” said Scalley, who noted that the 19th-ranked Cougars have good wide receivers, a legitimate quarterback and a well-coached offensive line.
Whittingham noted that Washington State (8-2, 5-2) is solid in all three phases,
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” he said.
Senior kicker Erik Powell is the Pac-12’s second-leading scorer with 84 points.
The Cougars are getting things done on defense as well. They currently lead the conference in pass efficiency defense (104.20 rating); rank second in passing defense (161.1 ypg) and total defense (297.7 ypg); and are third in rushing defense (136.4 ypg) and scoring defense (22.7 ppg).
“They’re not big up front but they’re exceptionally quick and athletic and they present problems,” Whittingham said. “They move around a lot. They have a lot of pre-snap movement as well as slanting after the snap.”
Junior defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa headlines the effort. He leads the Pac-12 with 16.5 tackles for loss and is second with 6.5 sacks.
Other notable defensive players for Washington State include defensive back Robert Taylor and linebacker Frankie Luvu. The seniors rank among the conference leaders in fumble recoveries. Sophomore safety Jalen Thompson has a team-high 58 tackles and three interceptions.
“They play exceptionally hard,” Whittingham said. “All 11 hands are running to the football on every snap so the effort and athleticism and overall speed they have on their defense stands out. It is an undersized defense that is very effective."
Washington State opened the season with five consecutive home games, prevailing against Montana State (31-0), Boise State (47-44), Oregon State (52-23), Nevada (45-7) and USC (30-27). The win streak continued with a road victory at Oregon (33-10).
The Cougars then dropped a 37-3 decision at California. That was followed by a 28-0 win at home over Colorado and a 58-37 setback at Arizona. Last week, they topped Stanford 24-21 in their home finale in Pullman.
No. 19/20 Washington State (8-2, 5-2) at Utah (5-4, 2-4)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700AM