Really good defense. We know it’s going to be challenging for our offense. But if we can possess the football and get a run game going then I think we’re going to be able to get some things done. —Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, on facing Washington
SALT LAKE CITY — Washington’s Dante Pettis left quite an impact on the Utah Utes. One of his NCAA-record nine punt returns for a touchdown came late in the fourth quarter of a game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2016. The score by Pettis proved to be the difference as the Huskies prevailed 31-24 and later went on to participate in the College Football Playoff.
"He has tremendous quickness and the ability to make you miss. All great punt returners are able to make ‘X’ number of guys miss, very seldom is it all blocked out and you have a clear path to the end zone,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “He catches the ball well, he handles the ball and makes good decisions. He seems to have a good idea of when to fair catch or when not to, but he is also very courageous in that respect. You want a guy that has courage.”
And that’s not all.
“He has great vision and sets up his blocks well. He is also very fast,” Whittingham continued. “So, if you put all of that together, you have the most prolific, at least touchdown-wise, (punt returner) of all time.”
As impressive as Pettis is — averaging 21.7 yards per return with four touchdowns this season — he is hardly a one-man show, even though he also leads the team in receiving with 5.4 catches per game.
Washington has other weapons, too. The Huskies (8-2, 5-2), in fact, have quite an arsenal.
Junior tailback Myles Gaskin has run for 1,038 yards and is one of the top scorers in the Pac-12 averaging nine points per game. Another junior, quarterback Jake Browning, tops the conference in completion percentage (.684) and is second in pass efficiency (153.9 rating).
Browning is a familiar face to Utah offensive coordinator Troy Taylor. They worked together at Folsom High in California a few years back.
“I haven’t watched them play a lot on that side of the ball, but I think they’ve been a little bit more deliberate with the run game — different personnel,” said Taylor, while noting Browning’s lower passing yardage this season. “But he’s still doing a great job. It’ll be fun to watch him play.”
Washington’s true strength may be on defense. The Huskies enter Saturday’s game with Utah as the Pac-12 leaders in total defense (257.4 ypg), passing defense (155.9 ypg), rushing defense (101.5 ypg) and scoring defense (13 ppg).
“Really good defense. We know it’s going to be challenging for our offense,” Whittingham said. “But if we can possess the football and get a run game going then I think we’re going to be able to get some things done.”
Utah (5-5, 2-5)
at No. 15/16 Washington (8-2, 5-2)
Husky Stadium, Seattle
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. (MT)
Radio: ESPN 700AM
Although the Huskies have suspended senior Azeem Victor following an arrest for driving under the influence, they still have a lot of talent at linebacker. Junior Ben Burr-Kirven has made 64 tackles and forced two fumbles. Junior Tevis Bartlett leads the team with 10 tackles for loss and senior Keishawn Bierria has recovered two fumbles.
Washington’s secondary features sophomore cornerback Myles Bryant, who has nine passes defended.
“I expect them to come out and play hard. They’re a good defense,” said Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley. “We’ve just got to go out and execute every play that is presented to us.”
The Huskies opened the season with six straight wins — defeating Rutgers, Montana, Fresno State, Colorado, Oregon State and California — before dropping a 13-7 decision at Arizona State. Victories over UCLA and Oregon followed. Then came last week’s 30-22 setback at Stanford.