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Utah, Kyle Whittingham present major challenge to Washington State on homecoming

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 28, 2018

PULLMAN – While the rest of the country spent the week buzzing about Porter Gustin’s hit heard round the world, Washington State players and coaches probably did not spend too much time rewatching or mulling the most disputed play from last Friday’s game against USC.

And if they did, it was by their own accord.

While officials decided Gustin’s helmet-to-helmet hit on quarterback Gardner Minshew was not targeting – and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, even more controversially, backed that verdict up earlier this week – there’s plenty of data available to the Cougars to suggest their 39-36 loss did not come down to a single judgment call.

Had WSU (3-1, 0-1) been a hair better in any of the game’s three phases, the Cougars probably would have emerged with the victory in Los Angeles and taken an unbeaten record into Saturday’s homecoming affair (3 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) against Utah (2-1, 0-1).

For example, WSU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys indicated his secondary “didn’t play off the ball very well.” The Cougars also committed more than their fair share of penalties.

“We make one or two of those plays, we win the ball game,” Claeys said.

So no time to stew about officiating decisions.

Utah is widely considered to be one of a few betting favorites to claim the Pac-12 South. If the Cougars can manufacture a win – more significantly, if their passing offense can stump the Utes’ savvy secondary – the rest of the year sets up nicely.

Those “ifs” loom pretty large, though.

WSU head coach Mike Leach said Thursday on his weekly radio show the 2018 Utes don’t look too different than the 2017 Utes, or for that matter any of the Utah teams Kyle Whittingham has presided over during his nearly decade-and-a-half tenure in Salt Lake City. That’s a good thing for the Utes and a bad thing for the Cougars.

Whittingham, 113-57 at Utah, has had only two losing seasons and he has an immaculate record in the postseason. The Utes have gone 11-1 in bowl games under Whittingham’s watch.

“They’re always good, everybody always asks for all these differences,” Leach said. “There aren’t any differences. They’re always good. They’re always real physical, they always try to hit you as hard as they can. They want to send a message, they want to make sure they tattoo you in a way that you know it was them on an individual basis. They hit you and their secondary’s been together for a while, too.”

The secondary is comprised of seniors Marquise Blair and Corrion Ballard, junior Julian Blackmon and sophomore Jaylen Johnson. The quartet has combined to make 43 career starts, which is about as many passing completions as the Utes have allowed through three games this season. They’ve conceded 37, which is why the Cougars consider this their toughest exam yet. Utah’s 93 passing yards allowed per game leads the FBS and the Utes have given up just one passing touchdown through 12 quarters.

“Those are two really important things, being really talented and having played a lot,” WSU inside receivers coach Dave Nichol said earlier this week. “Their scheme, they don’t give you many easy catches and I respect that. They’re going to make you kind of earn every yard.”

But the Cougars probably don’t need a record-shattering day throwing the ball to beat the Utes. They just need to outscore Utah’s offense, which has only managed to score 24 points in two games against FBS opposition. WSU hasn’t scored fewer than 31 in a single game.

The Cougars ought to exploit the Utes while they can, because under Whittingham, it’s unlikely they’ll be vulnerable for long.

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