The Huskies' Pac-12 opener suddenly has make-or-break implications for the their College Football Playoff hopes.
SALT LAKE CITY — And you thought Auburn was a big game.
The No. 10 Huskies are back on the road this weekend for their Pac-12 Conference opener against Utah, a game that suddenly has make-or-break implications for the Huskies’ College Football Playoff hopes.
The 21-16 loss to then-No. 9 Auburn two weeks ago in Atlanta leaves the Huskies with almost no margin for error when it comes to the playoff discussion, and they’re hardly easing into conference play.
“You’re building throughout the year, but certainly these first few games you just really feel like you’ve got some things to work on,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “Then you put this really meaningful impactful game against a really good opponent, it’s just the way the schedule has fallen this year — to start with Auburn and then go to Utah. …
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“We’re going to an extremely hard place to play, harder than where we played back East because we’re truly on their campus, (against) a team that is super well coached and is going to be one of the better teams in the country when it’s all said and done.”
The Utes (2-0), who fell just outside The Associated Press Top 25 poll this week (they’re No. 26), are expected to be one of the top challengers in the Pac-12 South this season.
They are expecting their 53rd consecutive sellout for the 7 p.m. PT kickoff Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The game will air on ESPN.
As part of a black-out theme, Utah will wear black uniforms and has asked fans to wear black too.
“It’s going to be a pretty crazy environment,” UW senior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven said. “It’ll probably be more hostile than even the Auburn game was. That stadium is pretty special and not a lot of people probably know about it outside the Pac-12. But they’re going to pack the house and it should be an exciting environment.”
The Huskies have won their past two Pac-12 openers, both on the road: at Arizona in overtime in 2016; and at Colorado in 2017.
ESPN’s “College GameDay” was on the Utah campus two years ago when the Huskies last visited Salt Lake City. Dante Pettis’ late punt-return touchdown gave the No. 4 Huskies a 31-24 victory over No. 17 Utah that day.
“We can stand toe-to-toe with them and play with them, and that is something that should give us some confidence,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Washington and Utah have two of the Pac-12’s top defenses. Both have been inconsistent on offense in their first two games.
The Huskies, in particular, would like to see better production out of their run game. Petersen said that has to start with better blocking from the reshuffled offensive line, which will be without senior left tackle Trey Adams (back surgery) for some time and could again be without junior center Nick Harris (undisclosed injury). Petersen didn’t offer a concrete update on Harris’ status this week.
In the Huskies’ rout of lower-division North Dakota last Saturday, Petersen said the running game was “stumbling over ourselves too many times.” That can’t continue into Pac-12 play, he said.
“We better get it figured out, because this is a significantly different (and) better run defense than we’ve seen,” he said.