The Huskies are venturing into new territory tomorrow, making their first trip in school history to Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium (pictured in a school photo).
Of more import to the Huskies, though, is the recently uncharted — by them, anyway — territory they could once again grace with a win tomorrow.
Beat the Utes, and the Huskies would be 4-1 overall and 2-0 in conference play for the first time since 2006 — a year when they then lost their next six straight to fall out of bowl contention (a slide that coincided with an injury to Isaiah Stanback). Otherwise, you’d have to go back to 2001 for the last time the Huskies had a similarly gaudy start to that which they could achieve by beating Utah.
And that would obviously also put UW on the periphery of the Top 25 and mark them as truly on the way back to college football relevancy in their third year under Steve Sarkisian — and with a bye week to follow to let it all sink in.
So lots on the line for UW tomorrow. There’s obviously a lot for Utah, as well, being its first Pac-12 home game, and the Utes needing a win to avoid falling to 0-2 in conference play and instead set up a South Division showdown at home next week against Arizona State.
The public perception of this game is intriguing. As noted on here a couple of times already, the betting line has moved markedly in Utah’s favor, from 6.5 at the start of the week to as much as 10 now.
Conversely, it seems like I’m seeing a lot of media types siding with the Huskies — ar at least picking them to beat the spread (here’s an Athlon’s writer pegging UW as one of his top picks of the week to at least cover).
If you’re a numbers guy, there’s a few that favor Utah that have been bandied about all week, such as the Utes being 6-0 coming off in-season byes under Kyle Whittingham.
Always hard to know if any of that is relevant in a game like this — my hunch is not really, other than the mere fact of Utah having had a bye to get a little healthier and plan for the Huskies while UW took some obvious physical hits last week.
Utah’s also been pretty hard to beat at home through the years — 59-17 since Rice-Eccles opened in 1998 — and while this won’t be the largest crowd UW will play in front of this year, it could be about as loud, just based on the way the stadium is set up and its raucous student section. But UW obviously has the experience of having played at Nebraska two weeks ago. It’s probably the more tangible aspects of playing on the road — such as being able to hear — that may be a bigger deal tomorrow than being awed by the surroundings or anything.
Once it becomes just a football game, then, can the Huskies stand up to the Utes?
UW has obvious defensive issues that have been well-chronicled here and elsewhere. But this might be a good matchup for the Huskies as UW seems better-suited to play against power running teams than just about anything else, and that’s pretty much what Utah is. UW gave up a lot of rushing yards against Nebraska, but a lot of that was due to QB Taylor Martinez, both in getting yards himself or presenting a threat that had to be covered on every play. Utah doesn’t have that. It does have a really good running back in John White, but the Huskies may be better designed now to stop the run with the defensive line featuring Everrette Thompson at end. It seems as if UW’s D-line is playing a little better, and Utah could be without its best O-lineman in right tackle Tony Bergstrom. (And obviously UW will be without its best pass rusher in Hau’oli Jamora, so maybe those two losses will simply even out).
Wynn has been a good passer in the past, but the off-season shoulder surgery seems to have taken something of a toll on his game, and the Utes rank just ahead of only Nebraska in terms of its passing attack of the teams UW has played so far.
Offensively, UW should be able to move the ball and score some, as it has all year. The Utes like to play man defense, and that could give UW some opportunities for some big plays with its deep and varied receiving corps (and I’m including in that group the tight ends and Chris Polk, who as we saw last week were basically the difference in the game).
Utah has proven pretty stout against the run, but did allow 152 on 39 carries against USC. UW has had some struggles getting its running game going, but maybe this is the day for Polk to truly revert to late 2010 form.
Utah’s biggest statistical advantage so far has been its ability to force turnovers — 12 in three games, which is tied for sixth in the nation, leading to a plus-nine turnover margin that is third.
That will obviously be a big key for the Huskies, who have stressed ball security in practice all week with Utah having recovered eight fumbles among its 12 turnovers. Anything more than two turnovers may spell doom for the Huskies.
Given Utah’s success at home through the years, its status as a Top 10 team much of last year,, and UW’s defensive issues, it makes sense that Utah is favored, even if the line seems a bit high.
But here’s one vote for thinking that Saturday is the day the Huskies put it all together, with a defense that at least proves a little more stout — in part due to some of matchups that might favor the Huskies, as discussed above — along with another good day for the offense and special teams. Call it WASHINGTON 31, UTAH 27.