Huskies are surprising underdogs against 4-5 Utes for Saturday's 7:30 p.m. game at CenturyLink Field.
A popular topic of conversation among Washington football fans this week was the betting line, which has visiting Utah favored by one point.
That’s a Utah team that comes into Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. Pac-12 contest with a 4-5 record, not having won a road game and starting a true freshman quarterback, Travis Wilson — the Utes’ third starting QB of the year.
The only line Washington coach Steve Sarkisian was worried about, though, was the one the Huskies (5-4, 3-3 Pac-12) will face on the field.
As their record indicates, the Utes have question marks, specifically with an offense that hasn’t scored more than 14 points in any of its three Pac-12 road games.
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But Utah’s defensive front is one of the best in the Pac-12, led by senior tackle Star Lotulelei, voted by offensive linemen as the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12 last year. He’s expected to be one of the top picks in the NFL draft.
Sarkisian went as far as to say that “they’ve got some goons up front” during his weekly Monday news conference. He added later, with a laugh, that he meant that as a term of endearment.
“They’re playing really well up front,” he said. “That’s where I think their team starts.”
The Utes rank third in the conference in rushing defense (105.2 yards per game), a key reason they also rank third in total defense (336.3), though not having played Oregon likely also helps the numbers.
Washington, though, found a way to beat the teams that rank ahead of Utah in rushing defense, Stanford and Oregon State. The formula the Huskies used included a stingy defense, especially inside their opponents’ 20-yard line, and running enough to convert a few opportunities through the air.
A similar strategy worked last week in a 21-13 win at California, UW’s second straight victory. That followed a devastating 52-17 loss at Arizona.
With their next two games at struggling Colorado and Washington State, the Huskies could be headed for a strong finish if they can beat Utah.
Washington hasn’t scored more than 21 points against a BCS team this year, and has been outscored 171-110 in Pac-12 games and 237-186 all season.
But Sarkisian said he thinks the team has finally found itself the past two weeks.
“I like where we’re at as a team,” he said. “I think good teams find a way to win. Sometimes it’s not always pretty. You’d much rather win ugly than lose pretty. We’re a black-and-blue team; we’re kind of your old meat-and-potatoes, lunch-pail, hard-hat kind of a team. And that’s fine. I love being that way. I think our guys have embraced that mentality, and that’s just the way we play.”
Players agreed that the success of the past two weeks, especially a road win, has revived the team.
“It was huge,” said senior safety Justin Glenn of winning at Cal. “We needed that. We’re feeling good off that.”
The Huskies are one victory away from bowl eligibility for the third straight year. Sarkisian, though, downplayed that.
“Our focus is on the game and what it’s going to take to win a very difficult and physical football game,” he said. “And then we’ve got more football to play after that, so that hasn’t been the focus at all. I haven’t even really talked about it to the team at all.”
Sarkisian also downplayed that this will be the last home game for seniors. That includes five players who signed in 2008 with former coach Tyrone Willingham — Glenn, receiver Cody Bruns, center Drew Schaefer and defensive backs Anthony Gobern and Adam Long.
Each has seen the program rise from the depths of 0-12 to annual bowl games. But all said this week this is no time for nostalgia.
“You want to stay focused,” Schaefer said. “You want to go out with a victory on your Senior Night. And there will be time to celebrate and kind of reflect after the game.”