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WSU’s improving offensive line gets big test against Utah

SALT LAKE CITY – The element of time was added to the Washington State offense against Oregon last week. As in, Connor Halliday had all the time he needed to find his preferred receiver and make the throw. The Ducks didn’t sack WSU’s quarterback until the Cougars’ final offensive play, and rarely put him under any pressure at all. It was a startling contrast to the duress Halliday operated under during the Air Raid offense’s first two years in Pullman, when WSU quarterbacks were sacked 89 times. Whether or not that kind of success is the new normal will be apparent after Saturday’s game, which will pit WSU’s offensive line against a Utah defense that is sacking opposing quarterbacks an average of five times per game, the second-highest rate in the country. They are led by defensive end Nate Orchard, continuing Utah’s tradition of disruptive Pac-12 defensive linemen such as Star Lotulelei and Trevor Reilly. Through three games, Orchard has six sacks and four Utes have at least two this season. Both Orchard and Jared Norris collected a pair of sacks last Saturday during Utah’s win at Michigan, in which the Utes didn’t allow an offensive touchdown. Neither of Utah’s starting defensive tackles even approach 300 pounds, and the defensive ends, such as Orchard, are closer to 250. Rather than size, the Utes rely on speed and intensity. “(The Utes are) very similar to what they always are: strong, physical team, very fundamentally sound,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “And the biggest thing you notice about Utah is they’re physical, they’re always physical.” Washington State offensive line coach Clay McGuire says his charges need to “come out and do the same thing versus this opponent,” as they did against the Ducks. Anything remotely similar to last week’s level of pass-blocking success would represent another big step forward for the offensive linemen, most of whom will be in for their biggest challenge yet. Left tackle Joe Dahl and left guard Gunnar Eklund have seen it all by now, but center Riley Sorenson, right guard Eduardo Middleton and right tackle Cole Madison will all be making just the second Pac-12 start of their careers. “They’re a group that it was very important for us to come together; they are starting to come together,” Leach said. “And for a group that’s played together as short a period of time as they have, I thought they played together really good against a team the quality of Oregon. You just constantly try to improve.” Against the Ducks, that line faced long, athletic defensive linemen, but often only three of them. Concerns about what the WSU receivers could do against its struggling secondary caused UO to dial back its pressure and devote extra players to defending the pass. Utah is confident in its starting cornerbacks and is likely to employ a different tactic, bringing as much heat as possible on Halliday and trying to disrupt the passing game before the ball is in the air. If the game last week was a true barometer of how good this offensive line is, and it’s doubtlessly going to improve as the new starters gain experience, then maybe Halliday won’t need the nearly 20 pounds of additional weight he put on in the offseason to mitigate the effects of all those hits. He’ll have the time he needs to scan the field and find the optimal receiver, and the WSU offense will be tough to stop, even by a fierce Utah defense playing at home. But if last week’s blocking performance was a mirage, it will be readily apparent against one of the best pass rushes the Cougars will face all season.
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