There’s still so much football to be played in these two games — so much crazy stuff happens. —Washington head coach Chris Petersen
SEATTLE — Just over two years ago, Utah left Husky Stadium with a 34-23 win over Washington. As is often the case up here, the game was played in wet weather. Nothing, however, dampened anything for the Utes until the final play when safety Chase Hansen broke his leg. He made 11 tackles that day.
The disappointment associated with Hansen’s injury is what is most memorable to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham about his team’s last visit to Seattle. He also recalls the rain and, of course, how the Utes performed in capturing their one and only victory over the Huskies.
“We did play well,” Whittingham said. “We had a great defensive effort and it would be nice to go up and play that well again this year.”
The opportunity has come. Utah (5-5, 2-5) takes on 15th-ranked Washington (8-2, 5-2) Saturday (8:30 p.m., ESPN) in a Pac-12 contest that has lost some of its luster. Preseason predictions had both teams contending for division titles. The Utes, though, are still one game away from just being bowl eligible. The defending Pac-12 champion Huskies, meanwhile, have also fallen short of expectations. Tabbed as the team to beat once again, they need a California upset of Stanford and season-ending wins over the Utes and Washington State to claim another Pac-12 North crown.
“There’s still so much football to be played in these two games — so much crazy stuff happens,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said at his weekly press conference. “And it doesn’t matter what happens (with Stanford). We have no say over that. All we can control is playing as hard as we can.”
Whittingham is expecting nothing less, especially after Washington’s 30-22 setback at Stanford last week.
“I’m sure they are going to be in not a good state of mind. They will be an angry football team,” he said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us. They are a talented team, they are strong in all three phases.”
Perhaps no area is stronger than special teams, particularly punt returns. Senior Dante Pettis leads the nation with an average return of 21.7 yards and four touchdowns. Pettis returned one 58 yards for a touchdown for the game-winning score in last year’s 31-24 victory for Washington at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“They’ve got a tremendous punt returner. He was the difference in the game last year. That’s just plain and simple. He was the difference and so we’ve got to try to keep him from busting loose,” Whittingham said. “He’s returned four for touchdowns this year already and has got nine in his career. So we’ve got our work cut out for us. We’ve just got to be smart, punt the ball correctly, and hopefully be OK.”
Whittingham is pleased with Utah’s punt coverage team this season. Led by reigning Ray Guy Award winer Mitch Wishnowsky, the Utes are second in the nation in net punting (43.89 yards). Opponents have only returned five of Wishnowsky’s punts this season and netted just 16 yards.
Utah’s offense faces a tough task. Washington’s defense leads the Pac-12 in numerous statistical categories. The Huskies are first in total defense (257.4 ypg), passing defense (155.9 ypg), rushing defense (101.5 ypg) and scoring defense (13 ppg).
The Utes had seven turnovers in last week’s 33-25 loss to Washington State.
“You’re not going to win when you turn the ball over that many times,” said offensive coordinator Troy Taylor. “So we’ve got to take care of that. We’ve got to take care of the ball because everything else, if you don’t do that, is irrelevant.”
Defensively, the Utes will also face a stiff test. Washingtonn has a telanted quarterback in Jake Browning, a 1,000-yard rusher in Myles Gaskin, and a speedy receiver in Pettis.
“Washington is a very good team, a very good offense and (Browning) being an NFL quarterback just makes you want to play harder,” said linebacker Donavan Thompson.
The sophomore noted that two things can happen. Browning will come out and put on a show, or the Utes will come out there and shut him down.
“Any challenge I have I’m not going to face away from it,” said freshman cornerback Jaylon Johnson. “So it’s definitely going to be good to have good competition at the quarterback and receiver spot.”
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Utes on the air
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