Arrow-right Camera

Utah’s record improves greatly at home, challenging Cougs

Utah’s Travis Wilson, right, celebrates a TD versus Cal. (Associated Press)
Utah’s Travis Wilson, right, celebrates a TD versus Cal. (Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Utah’s record is not impressive.

Utah’s record at home, however, is another matter. So is the way the Utes play there.

They’ve have limped to a 3-5 mark this season, a disappointing record punctuated by the early loss of quarterback Jordan Wynn to another shoulder injury and some unforeseen deficiencies in a defense many expected to be one of the Pac-12’s best.

But inside the confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Utes have been a different team. They’re 3-1 there, most recently blasting California, 49-27, in a game Utah led 42-6 at one point. And the Utes have outscored opponents 152-76 at Rice-Eccles this season.

“We’ve had great support from our fans for a lot of years now and our guys love to play at home,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. ‘The record this year certainly bears that out. We’ve got to become a better road team. The Pac-12 road games are very challenging. We’re still going through a process here in that regard. … There’s no question we’ve been a better home team.”

So, yes. Washington State is aware of the challenge ahead.

“I mentioned that to our guys today,” linebackers coach Jeff Choate said Tuesday. “I said, ‘we haven’t played in an environment like that.’ The ol’ MUSS (Utah’s student section), they get after it down there. It’s much louder than you might expect. The stands are very, very close to the sidelines so it’s a bit intimidating in that respect.

“It’ll probably be the most hostile environment that we’ll play in up to this point this year.”

It’s the Cougars’ first trip there for a Pac-12 game, with Utah in its second season of conference membership. WSU last played in Salt Lake City in 2000, winning 38-21.

This time around, they’ll face a Utes team that, despite only last week becoming the second-to-last Pac-12 team to earn a conference victory this season – WSU is the lone winless team – still has plenty to play for.

Not only are the Utes coming off an easy-as-you-please win over Cal last week – one that snapped a four-game losing streak – but with remaining games against WSU (2-6), Colorado (1-7), Washington (4-4) and Arizona (5-3), three wins and subsequent bowl eligibility isn’t out of the question.

It’s up to quarterback Travis Wilson to guide his team there. After John Hays struggled in Wynn’s absence, Utah turned in recent weeks to the freshman Wilson, a 6-foot-6, 230-pounder who had certain offensive packages designed for him from day one of the season.

Wilson has completed 62 of 95 passes this season for 696 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. But if Utah’s offense is clicking, it’s because running back John White is carrying the offense. He’s battled injuries this season, but rushed for 105 yards on 22 carries against Cal.

“They’ve scaled down their game plan and not asking (Wilson) to do as much,” WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske said.

“The back is who they’re going to give the ball to, and that type of deal. They’re going to ask (Wilson) just to manage the game, don’t screw it up.”

He didn’t do that against the Bears, at least.

“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Whittingham said. “He has the field-general mentality that you look for in a quarterback. He possesses that. There’s no question who’s in charge when he’s in the huddle.”

“You just try to cloud his decisions and hope he makes slow ones,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “But first of all, he’s ahead of the average, run-of-the-mill freshman, no question about it.”