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Washington State could have big opportunity in passing game if Utah employs man coverage

Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon throws against UCLA during the first half Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Utah’s defensive backs pressed up against the chests of USC’s wide receivers. They scaled them like jungle gyms. They made attempts to bump the big, strong wideouts off the ball, and direct them away from their intended route paths.

But what the Utes ultimately failed to do as a defensive secondary Friday night was prevent USC’s receivers from having a big night in a 30-23 upset loss to the Trojans at L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

A third-string quarterback named Matt Fink completed 21 of 30 passes for 351 yards and targeted three receivers for touchdowns, while throwing only one interception. Fink fed Michael Pittman Jr. most often, throwing 10 passes to the outside receiver for 232 yards and one touchdown.

Utah’s cornerbacks and safeties have another mountain of a challenge on their hands Saturday, squaring off against another Pac-12 foe that runs the Air Raid offense as well – and diligently – as anyone in the country.

Among the top 10 receivers in the Pac-12 Conference, Nos. 1 (USC’s Pittman Jr.), 3 (USC’s Tyler Vaughns), 4 (WSU’s Brandon Arconado), 5 (WSU’s Easop Winston Jr.) and 10 (WSU’s Dezmon Patmon) play for either the Trojans or Cougars.

USC’s success against the Utes doesn’t guarantee the Cougars a similar outcome, but if Utah ploys similar coverage schemes, WSU’s passing attack might take advantage the same way the Trojans did.

“They’re a great team. We’re going to see a lot of man (coverage),” WSU redshirt sophomore Travell Harris said. “But like I said, man, I’m focused on us right now. Utah’s a great team, but we’re a great team as well. We’ve got explosive playmakers, an explosive quarterback and a great coach. So we’ll do what we do, stick to our script.”

The Utes lost one defensive back, Marquise Blair, to the NFL, but they bring back two All-Pac-12 players in Jaylon Johnson and Julian Blackmon, who are complemented by speedy Javelin Guidry. The unit was billed in the preseason was one of the best in the conference and country and performed well the first three weeks of the season, allowing just one passing touchdown.

But USC’s receivers undoubtedly posed a greater challenge to the Utes than those at BYU, Northern Illinois or Idaho State. Even as Utah changed course midway through Friday’s game – flipping from man to zone coverage – the Trojans still outplayed Kyle Whittingham’s team with explosive plays, including a 77-yarder from Fink to Pittman Jr.

“If people want to man up our receivers, they’re going to have a tough time doing it,” WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon said. “We’re great on the outside, great on the inside. So we’re not really too worried about what they’re going to do. If they’re in man, we’ll attack them. If they’re in zone, we’re going to sit in our spots and we’re going to hit the open guy.”

The Cougars are big, athletic and crafty out wide, with Patmon, Winston, Tay Martin and Rodrick Fisher, and they’re small, quick and tough in the slot with Arconado, Harris and Renard Bell. Arconado left last weekend’s game against UCLA with an injury and it’s unclear if he’ll play this Saturday.

USC’s offensive coordinator is Graham Harrell, a former quarterback for Mike Leach at Texas Tech. Leach said the two trade text messages on a weekly basis, but made no indication his pupil was passing along any detailed information about Whittingham’s Utes.

That wouldn’t be necessary in the first place, Leach suggested.

“They’re quality DBs, but we need to worry about us,” Leach said. “We need to worry about us making plays and us competing and doing our jobs. Those other guys are going to do theirs, we just have to worry about doing ours.”