SALT LAKE CITY — After Saturday’s game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, things won’t be so balanced between Utah and Washington State. The Utes and Cougars have an even history since meeting for the first time in 1966 and then again as Pac-12 foes.
The overall series is 7-7 and the conference battles sit at 2-2.
Something, obviously, has to give this time around. However, breaking the tie may not be easy for either side.
Although Washington State (8-2, 5-2) comes to town ranked 19th in the nation and armed with the Pac-12’s career passing leader in Luke Falk, the Cougars have had recent struggles on the road. They dropped lopsided decisions at California and Arizona by a combined score of 95-40 on their last two games away from Pullman.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, though, isn’t taking anything for granted.
“Big challenge this week, a top 20 team coming in here,” he said. “They’re a good football team, solid in all three phases. We’ve got out work cut out for us.”
The Utes (5-4, 2-4) are playing for bowl eligibility. They need one more victory to qualify for the fourth consecutive year. After emerging from a four-game skid with a 48-17 triumph over UCLA, the focus is on sending the seniors out with a postseason appearance.
“I’m just going in focused on getting a win,” said starting quarterback Tyler Huntley. “Whatever it takes to get a win that’s what I’m going to do and my team is going to do.”
Washington State is an intriguing matchup and not just because of colorful coach Mike Leach. The game will be a homecoming of sorts for the leader of his famed passing attack.
Falk, a Logan High School graduate, will be playing in Utah for the final time. The senior comes to town as the Pac-12’s career leader in numerous statistical categories including passing yards (13,806), total offensive yards (13,453), total plays (2,171), pass attempts (1,931) and completions (1,327).
“He makes good decisions. He has a tough mentality,” Whittingham said. “You can see he has some toughness to him, and he has a good arm. He is very accurate."
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
Whittingham noted that the Cougars are well-versed in Leach’s offensive scheme. The receiving routes, he explained, are based on subtle adjustments to find space and read coverage.
“They just have a great handle on what (Leach) wants to accomplish. Then he has the trigger guy in Luke Falk. He is an excellent guy to be running that show,” Whittingham said. “They do just enough with the run game where you really have to honor it. You can't just disregard it because when they do run the ball, they are efficient at it. I think they get exactly what they need out of it."
While Utah’s defense will be put to the test, the same can be said for the offense. Washington State could make things difficult. The Cougars are ranked second in the Pac-12 in total defense (297.5 ypg) and do well against both the pass (161.1 ypg) and run (136.4 ypg).
“The thing that makes them different this year is they are playing exceptional defense,” Whittingham said. “They are amongst the best defenses in the Pac-12 and in the country, and that has really made them a complete football team which makes them hard to deal with."
The Utes, meanwhile, are determined to build on last week’s offensive breakthrough that netted 48 points and 506 yards. Huntley threw four touchdown passes and ran for 93 yards. Zack Moss rushed for a career-high 153 yards and two scores.
"The degree of difficulty definitely gets higher and we understand that. The yards are going to be tougher to come by,” Whittingham said. “But it was great to see us have a game where we ran the football like we need to. So, hopefully we can build on that, but Washington State's defense is very stingy."