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Plenty of storylines to keep an eye on as Washington State, Utah gear up for Pac-12 battle

Washington State running back Gerard Wicks (23) carries the ball as Utah linebacker Marcus Sanders-Williams (58) pursues during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY – The game between Washington State and Utah was always going to bubble with fascinating storylines – even before a heap of postseason implications began to emerge for both the Cougars and Utes, who are set to square off on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

Luke Falk, the WSU quarterback who’s generated one of the best success stories in college football over the last half-decade, returns to the state where he learned how to throw his first spiral.

“It’ll be great, he’s got a whole bunch of people coming to the game,” said Cougars special teams coach Eric Mele, one of the few who spotted Falk’s talent while he attended Logan High School, about 80 miles north of Rice-Eccles. “It’ll be fun to see him start in that stadium. As a kid growing up over there in Utah, he probably dreamed about that.”

The head coaches have an intriguing background as well. WSU’s Mike Leach and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham not only got their college diplomas from the same school, but they attended BYU at practically the same time. And in some fashion, both were influenced by the teachings of longtime BYU coach LaVell Edwards.

“Kyle was a starting linebacker, All-American during the golden age at BYU, so Kyle probably hated Utah more than I did,” Leach said. “… I was definitely always Cougars over the Utes, no matter what colors they manifest themselves.”

And how about another storyline?

Whittingham’s offensive coordinator is Troy Taylor, the former Eastern Washington OC who dialed up a 45-point game when the Eagles tipped WSU last season at Martin Stadium. The Cougars bumped into another member of that 2016 EWU staff earlier this season and Beau Baldwin, now calling plays at Cal, guided the Golden Bears to a resounding 37-3 victory in Berkeley almost exactly a month ago.

“I think you see similarities between Eastern (and) the game from this year against Cal,” WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “Some of the similar formations, a little more quarterback run game, which they have a talented kid to do that … but no, there’s certainly some similarities.”

Not that the Cougars (8-2, 5-2) are giving any of that much thought as they prepare to play a game that could either take them out of the Pac-12 title race, or keep them in the thick of it. Similarly, the Utes (5-4, 2-4) have plenty to play for in the month of November. Beating the Cougars would make them bowl-eligible for the 11th time in 14 seasons under Whittingham, the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12.

A key for WSU will be handling Tyler Huntley, possibly the league’s best dual-threat QB not named Khalil Tate. Huntley’s top target warrants plenty of attention, too. Oregon transfer Darren Carrington is the league leader in receiving yards per game (92.2) and his 830 yards on the season are 500 more than Utah’s next best pass-catcher.

“Both the length that he possesses, he has some top-end speed to get on top of you and he has the ability to get off of press coverage to get open,” Grinch said. “They use him in the slot as well … you’ve got to have a unique skill set to be able to do all those things.”

Leach’s Air Raid tends to give a handful of receivers an opportunity to catch the ball. Seven WSU players have at least 28 catches – more than the second-best Utah receiver – and nine have hauled in a touchdown.

The Utes would be better off trying to shut down the guy who’s delivering the ball. Falk’s had a somewhat tumultuous senior year by his own standards, but the WSU senior is still the Pac-12’s leader in yards (2,913), completions (280) and touchdowns (26).

Leach just hopes his signal-caller doesn’t spend too much time peering into the crowd, where a collection of family members and close friends will be gathered, expecting Falk’s best stuff.

“About every member of his family I met his great,” Leach said. “I hope he successfully ignores them until after the game and remembers that they’ll love him a little bit more if we beat Utah instead of lose to them.”