No. 9 Utah (7-1, 4-1) at Washington (5-3, 2-3)
1 p.m. Saturday, Husky Stadium
TV: Ch. 13. Radio: KOMO-AM 1000/FM-97.7
Latest line: Utes by 3 points.
UW key players
QB Jacob Eason: 67.4% completions, 1,981 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, 3 interceptions
RB Salvon Ahmed: 662 rushing yards, 5.8 yards per carry, 7 TD
DL Levi Onwuzurike: 29 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 blocked punt
S Myles Bryant: 51 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 INT, 1 forced fumble, 1 sack
Utah key players
QB Tyler Huntley: 73.1% completions, 1,778 passing yards, 10 TD, 1 INT, 229 rushing yards, 3 rush TD
RB Zack Moss: 728 rushing yards, 6.6 YPC, 10 TD
DB Julian Blackmon: 29 tackles, 4 pass breakups, 2 INT, 1 FF, 1 TFL
DE Bradlee Anae: 17 tackles, 8 TFL, 7 sacks, 1 FF
Run (if you dare)
Washington’s coaching staff has repeatedly vowed in the past few weeks to “play to its strengths,” and that means running the football. Since losing at Stanford on Oct. 5, UW’s running backs have amassed 356 rushing yards and four touchdowns in their past two games. But here’s the problem: the Huskies haven’t encountered anything quite like Utah. Through eight games, the Utes lead the country in rushing defense, allowing just 56.38 rushing yards per game. UW coach Chris Petersen said on Thursday that he has never faced a defense that has allowed so few rushing yards this late in a season. The Utes also rank second nationally in opponent yards per carry (2.45) and fourth in rushing touchdowns allowed (3). The Huskies have to at least try to run. But will they find their footing? “They’re good all the way around,” UW running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said. “They’re physical. They do a great job of holding the point. They’re aggressive on the second level, when you’re talking about their linebackers and the secondary. They just have a great scheme and they’re solid and they’re going to really try to stop the run.”
On the other side, Utah also has the Pac-12’s premier rushing offense, piling up 219.38 rushing yards per game with 5.07 yards per carry and 21 touchdowns. The most formidable piece of that puzzle is 222-pound senior running back Zack Moss, who has compiled 728 rushing yards, 6.6 yards per carry and 10 scores in seven games. Petersen said Moss is “different than we’ve seen for sure. When you watch him, it’s like, ‘Man, this guy is powerful.’ It’s hard to hit him and stop him. It’s going to have to be a few guys, and he’s always falling forward. But then the thing he brings to the table is, he hits long runs. He’s got deceptive speed, and maybe it’s not even deceptive. He can outrun guys, and he does it most games.” And, Moss aside, Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley is also a perfectly capable runner, with 229 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the year. Together, the Utes will present a significant challenge for a UW defense that has allowed 179.6 rushing yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry in conference play.
Third down and red zone
Unfortunately for Husky fans, UW’s offensive weaknesses are Utah’s strengths. The Huskies convert just 35.35% of their third-down attempts, which ranks 105th nationally and 11th in the Pac-12. Utah, meanwhile, allows conversions of just 26.32% of opponents’ third-down tries, which leads the conference and ranks third nationally. UW also converts red-zone trips into touchdowns just 54.29% of the time (94th nationally, 9th Pac-12), and the Utes allow a touchdown in just 41.67% of those situations (2nd Pac-12, 5th nationally). It’s not enough for the Huskies to casually move the football. They need to execute in critical situations, which has been a struggle at times this season. They need to be physically superior in third-and-short situations. They need to avoid penalties and turnovers in the red zone. In short, quarterback Jacob Eason, running back Salvon Ahmed and the UW offensive line may need to play their best (and gutsiest) game of the season. Can they do it? Time will tell.
Unfortunately, a bye week will not suddenly solve Washington’s most glaring weaknesses. Utah running back Zack Moss — who enters Saturday with 728 rushing yards, 6.6 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns in seven games — will find success against a UW defense that has allowed 179.6 rushing yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry in conference play. Washington, on the other side, will struggle to consistently run the ball against the nation’s premier rushing defense. It’ll also continue to hit predictably frustrating roadblocks in the red zone. Junior quarterback Jacob Eason will make a few noteworthy plays, but not enough. The Huskies need to force turnovers to win. They’ve collected 13 turnovers in their five wins this season and zero in their three losses. But Utah has surrendered just seven turnovers, which ranks tied for 12th nationally. Though Washington has won four consecutive games in the series, Utah is the more physical and experienced team this time around. In the end, that will show on Saturday.
Final score: Utes 24, Huskies 16