Star quarterback Cam Rising is hoping what happened two weeks ago was the beginning of a charge toward another conference title for No. 14 Utah.
Getting there for the Utes means solving a tricky test Thursday night when taking on Washington State in what would appear to be a matchup of teams going in opposite directions.
Both teams are coming off bye weeks that took on decidedly different feels. Utah (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) edged Southern California in a wild 43-42 shootout on Oct. 15 that kept it in the thick of the race for the conference title. On the same day, Washington State stumbled to its ugliest loss of the season at Oregon State.
Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward was sacked six times by the Beavers, and the Cougars (4-3, 1-3) have given up 11 sacks in their past two games, both losses. That prompted coach Jake Dickert to revamp the offensive line.
“Our protection needs to get better,” Dickert said. “I thought we were loose last Saturday, defensively, with some alignments and finishes. Those are things we can control as coaches. I’m not going to sit here and put all that on the players.”
Washington State has lost three of its past four games after a 3-0 start, and the week off came at the right time. There’s also the advantage of a home weeknight game with temperatures expected to be chilly at kickoff on the Palouse.
“We got to get our bodies right. We got to recover from the past seven weeks,” linebacker Francisco Mauigoa said. “That’s just a part of football.”
Utah opened its season with a close loss at Florida, then won four in a row before losing at UCLA on Oct. 8. The win over USC was a crucial bounce back performance by the Utes but still left questions to answer during the bye week.
“Figuring out why we’re deficient on defense and simplifying things, getting our players in the right frame of mind,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
But Utah also knows there can’t be anymore stumbles if it wants to be in Las Vegas the first weekend of December for the conference title game.
“You’re just trying to win every week and that never changes, obviously, no matter the configuration of the league,” Whittingham said. “The champion is going to be crowned by who wins the game in Las Vegas; not whether you go in there first or second.”
Utah ranks first in the Pac-12 in passing defense (208 yards per game), second in total defense (350 yards) and fourth in scoring defense (22.3 points per game). The Utes’ defense is led by cornerback Clark Phillips III, who has grabbed five of the team’s 10 interceptions.
WASHINGTON STATE RUSH
The Cougars’ rushing attack has been the least productive in the Pac-12, averaging just 89 yards per game. That’s 20 fewer yards per game than 11th-place Colorado. Washington State has been without starting running back Nakia Watson after he suffered an injury Oct. 8 at USC.
The Washington State defense sits atop the conference rankings at just 20.7 points allowed per game and is one of the nation’s most productive teams in sacks (20) and tackles for loss (52). But the Cougars managed just two sacks and eight tackles for loss combined in their past two games, both losses.
RISING IS RISING
Rising was terrific in the win over USC, completing 30 of 44 passes for 415 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers. He’s been sacked just five times all season. Rising has passed for 1,855 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, adding 308 yards on the ground and six rushing touchdowns.
Washington State has tinkered with its receiver corps since veteran slotback Renard Bell was knocked out with an arm injury against USC. The Cougars have settled on a group that includes three outside receivers — De’Zhaun Stribling, Donovan Ollie and freshman Leyton Smithson — and slotback Robert Ferrel. “With Renard out, we needed to try to find a way to get our playmakers the ball as much as possible,” Dickert said.