SALT LAKE CITY — The road to the Pac-12 championship hasn’t taken the usual route in 2016 with traditional powers such as Stanford and Oregon struggling.
The premier game of this season could take place in Salt Lake City on Saturday when No. 17 Utah hosts No. 4 Washington in a possible preview of the title game.
Washington (7-0, 4-0 Pac-12) is off to its first 7-0 start since 1992 when the Huskies shared the league championship with Stanford. The No. 4 ranking is their highest since 2000. Third-year coach Chris Petersen called Utah their biggest challenge of the season.
“I think their record proves out,” Petersen said. “Going on the road, that’s a really great environment to play in, all those types of things across the board. This will by far be our toughest test so far.”
The Utes are off to a 7-1 start for the second consecutive season as they continue to chase the first Pac-12 championship in school history. The Utes sit atop the South Division with a 4-1 record and control their own destiny, once again. The 2015 team, however, dropped back to back games after improving to 7-1 and wound up in the Las Vegas Bowl.
“If you want to win the Pac-12 South, you have to do it the entire season,” Utah safety Chase Hansen said. “You’ve got to do it at the end of the year. You can’t have any excuses. No one cares who’s hurt. You’ve got to be able to fight at this point in the season. You’ve got to win games however you can. Right now it’s just about fighting, grinding it out.”
With ESPN “College GameDay” in town for this matchup of Pac-12 powers, here are five things to watch:
1. Can Joe Williams keep it up?
It was crazy enough when the Utah senior retired after the second game of the season, then decided to return to the team after a spate of injuries wiped out the Utes’ depth at running back.
But it was even more amazing when Williams went for 179 yards in a win over Oregon State, then went crazy with a 332-yard, four-touchdown performance in Utah’s 52-45 victory at UCLA.
Huskies players and coaches have noted this year that Williams has taken few enough practice and game reps to have pretty fresh legs, and though the Huskies rank a respectable 35th in the country in yards per rush allowed (3.72), they have allowed two 100-yard rushers this season — Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins (176), and Oregon State running back Tim Cook last week (108).
“There’s no secrets to what they’re doing,” UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. “They’re just executing at a high level and the running back’s doing a good job finding space, and then if someone’s not there making the tackle, he’s taking it to the house.”
2. More life without Joe Mathis.
UW’s senior defensive end missed last week’s game against Oregon State due to injury, and it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll be back this week, either.
That means fourth-year junior defensive end Connor O’Brien will likely make his second consecutive start. O’Brien made four tackles and had UW’s only sack last week. He also had a 46-yard interception return for a touchdown earlier this season against Idaho.
Utah is a run-first team, but the Huskies can make things even more difficult for Utes quarterback Troy Williams if O’Brien can continue to pick up where Mathis, the team’s sacks leader with 5.0, left off.
“He’s physical, plays hard and plays with that great motor,” Kwiatkowski said of O’Brien. “He’s never going to go away. A lot of the plays that he makes are effort plays, and every now and then he makes a splash play, and he’s working to get better. Pass rush has been something he’s had to work on and he’s gotten better at doing.”
3. How amped will Troy Williams be?
By now, you’ve surely heard: the ex-UW quarterback, now Utah’s starter, is pretty excited to face his old team. He wants to show the Huskies — or, more specifically, Petersen — that he’s still a worthy Pac-12 quarterback.
Williams doesn’t have an outstanding stat line — he completes 55.9 percent of his passes, with seven touchdowns and five interceptions — but he has shown a knack for making big plays with the game on the line.
The question might be whether he’s a little too eager to show what he can do. If the Huskies can get pressure on him early, maybe that motivation will manifest in the form of a few bad decisions or forced throws.
Petersen tried to quell any notion that UW’s players are looking forward to this game just because it gives them a chance to face their old pal.
“I think that this is a big game between two good football teams, and I really think that that’s what this is all about,” Petersen said. “I think our guys kind of understand that and have been preparing hard and ready to go.”
4. Utah’s turnover-forcing defense vs. Washington’s offense.
Nobody forces turnovers like Utah does. The Utes lead the country with 22 takeaways through eight games, and they’re tied for the national lead with 14 interceptions. Last week against UCLA, they recovered a fumble and picked off Bruins quarterback Mike Fafaul four times.
But the Huskies don’t turn the ball over. Their offense had committed just four in seven games — their fifth turnover of the season came when they failed to recover Oregon State’s onside kick attempt last week — and quarterback Jake Browning has thrown only two interceptions. Western Michigan is the only team in the country that has committed fewer turnovers than Washington.
Utah is also tied for 20th nationally with 20 sacks. But Utah’s defense doesn’t really stand out statistically in any other way, ranking 69th nationally in yards per play allowed.
So it stands to reason that if UW can simply take care of the ball, it should be able to continue its torrid offensive pace. UCLA, after all, scored 45 points with its backup quarterback against this Utes defense last week.
5. If it comes down to the kicking game …
Utah not only has one of the most accurate field-goal kickers in the Pac-12 — Andy Phillips is 13-for-16 this season — but also has the best punter, statistically.
That would be sophomore Mitch Wishnowsky. The Western Australia native averages 48.1 yards per punt, tops in the league, and the Utes also lead the league with a net punting average of 45.3 yards, allowing only 1.7 yards per return.
“He puts it out there, but they have really good coverage units and they cover well,” Petersen said. “They are physical guys and they cover. I always kind of think the special teams thing is an extension of defense, and it looks good.”
That means that even if the Huskies are solid defensively, they could still be facing an uphill battle when it comes to field position. And with a long of 47 yards this year, Phillips gives Utah a reliable weapon if the Utes move the ball inside the 30-yard line.
The News Tribune’s Christian Caple contributed to this story.