SALT LAKE CITY – There is still an avenue to the Pac-12 championship game for teams that open the conference season with consecutive losses, and there’s even a precedent for it. Not much of one, but it does exist.
Ask Washington State’s next opponent about that.
Last season, Utah stumbled through the first two weeks of conference play, losing games to Washington and Washington State before winning six of its final seven to secure a rematch with the Huskies in Santa Clara, California, which the Pac-12 South’s representative lost 10-7.
But just because the Utes did it, and did it recently, doesn’t mean it’s an easy road. Since the Pac-12 reshuffled in 2011, dividing its teams into North and South, there have been 16 divisional champions, Of those, the 2018 Utes have been the only team to start 0-2 in conference play and finish the regular season in Santa Clara, playing for the title. Even then, it took an especially atrocious year for the Pac-12 South, which boasted just two winning records and five teams with at least four conference losses.
The point being, when WSU (3-1, 0-1) and 19th-ranked Utah (3-1, 0-1) collide tonight at Rice-Eccles Stadium, there should be a fair amount of vengeance, and desperation, stirring on both sidelines as the Cougars and Utes look to regain their footing in conference play after absorbing losses last weekend.
Players may not be acutely aware of how the probability of reaching the Dec. 6 title game plummets with a loss in Salt Lake City, and it’s probably best it stays that way.
The Cougars were shell-shocked by UCLA last Saturday, losing 67-63 after the Bruins erased a 32-point deficit and rode a hurricane of momentum to the finish line, producing the second-biggest comeback in the history of the Football Subdivision.
Judging by the body language and temperament of WSU players this week, you would’ve thought the game ended when the Cougars took a 49-17 lead.
“Everyone’s got good spirits, we’ve moved on now. Everybody’s good,” redshirt sophomore slot receiver Travell Harris said. “We’re just focused on Utah and trying to get better.
“Man, that’s life. You’re going to take an ‘L’ one day in your life and you’ve just got to move on from it and get better and learn from it.”
Getting better has been a three-pronged endeavor for the Cougars this week.
The defense was barely visible during the third or fourth quarter against UCLA, giving up six touchdowns. On special teams, WSU allowed a kick-return touchdown and punt-return touchdown. While the offensive performed admirably and efficiently, one of the highest point totals of the Mike Leach era was soured by six turnovers – four on fumbles from WSU’s usually reliable outside receivers.
“The past few days have been tough, but we try not to think about it, we’re onto the next one,” said quarterback Anthony Gordon, the national leader in passing yards (1,891) and passing touchdowns (21). “Tough loss, but we’re using it as fuel to our fire this week and looking to execute a much cleaner game against Utah this week.”
A 39-36 loss to USC in Week 4 last season seemed to ignite the Cougars, who rebounded with a dramatic home win over the Utes and rattled off seven in a row before losing in the Apple Cup.
Noting the similarities between the circumstances, “Maybe the table’s set,” Gordon said, “but we’re just looking toward executing whatever we have in front of us and getting better as a team and correcting all of our mistakes.”
The Utes, coming off a 30-23 loss at USC, have their usual blend of speed, power and physical play.
The offense is again steered by a few speed demons from Florida. Even if dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huntley doesn’t have fellow Hallandale (Florida) High grad Zack Moss (shoulder) in the backfield with him, the Utes are in good hands with Boca Raton’s Devonta’e Henry-Cole, or Devin Brumfield, another southern-bred tailback who comes from Louisiana.
“They’re almost identical every year,” Leach said. “From one team to the next.”
Dealing with the Utes also means dealing with their vicious pass rush. The defensive line’s production doesn’t typically change from one year to the next, only the personnel.
This time, that isn’t even the case. Defensive tackles Leki Fotu and John Penisini, along with defensive end Bradlee Anae, hogged four of the eight all-conference D-line spots last season. Fotu and Anae elected to return to Utah after giving the NFL strong consideration, same as Moss and corner Jaylon Johnson. All four factored into Pac-12 writers choosing the Utes to finish No. 1 in the South.
Granted, nobody expected the Utes to take a step backward in the first week of the conference season, either. Same went for the Cougars, who were 19 1/2-point favorites against UCLA.
“I firmly believe no one’s going undefeated in the South,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said after the USC loss. “So we were in this position last year. It’s nothing new to us, nothing we can’t handle.”
One loss is fine, but two in two weeks? One of these teams will have that misfortune and it might just erase title hopes.
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