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First look: Hoping to rebound, Washington State travels to Salt Lake

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

What is it? Washington State (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) will make a trip to Salt Lake City for the third year in a row to play its first road game of this season, a conference matchup against Utah (1-2, 0-0). It’ll be homecoming for the Utes.

Where is it? Rice-Eccles Stadium, just east of downtown Salt Lake City.

When is it? Kickoff is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. PDT Saturday.

Where can I watch it? Pac-12 Network will carry the broadcast, as will the Pac-12 Now app.

Who is favored? The Utes opened as 14-point favorites.

How did they fare last week? WSU endured an astounding collapse, blowing a 14-point second-quarter lead and surrendering 45 unanswered points to visiting Southern Cal in a 45-14 loss. Utah lost to San Diego State in a 33-31 triple-overtime thriller. The Utes bounced back from a 14-point fourth quarter deficit in San Diego and sent the game into overtime, scoring a touchdown with 16 seconds remaining. The teams traded scores in the first extra period and both missed field goals in the second. In triple overtime – which now features alternating two-point tries – SDSU converted on a Philly Special and Utah couldn’t complete an open passing play.

Why WSU will win: The Utes might be a bit depleted after losing emotional games in back-to-back weeks. Two Saturdays ago, Utah dropped a decision to BYU for the first time in 12 years. This past weekend, San Diego State nipped the Utes in triple-overtime. It’s not like the Cougars are entering with momentum on their side, but it could be a good chance to jump on Utah. The Utes’ rushing defense is having an unusually porous start to the year, allowing 161.7 yards per game (ninth in the Pac-12). WSU is mid-tier in the league in both passing and running, but when its offense is at its best, the two phases are alternating in an unpredictable manner with quarterback Jayden de Laura at the helm. Cougar running back Max Borghi has had success throughout his career vs. the Utes. He’s racked up 256 yards from scrimmage in three games.

Why Utah will win: Utah probably has a better defense than WSU does an offense, especially if the Cougars don’t start de Laura at quarterback. The sophomore suffered a leg injury vs. USC, and his status for Saturday is uncertain. Utah ranks ninth nationally in passing defense, permitting just 135.3 yards per game. The Utes aren’t announcing who they’ll trot out at quarterback, but it’s looking like it’ll be mobile Texas transfer Cam Rising, who entered in relief and nearly sparked Utah to a come-from-behind win with an up-tempo style. His No. 1 target, junior speedster Britain Covey, lit the Cougars up for 134 yards and a score on six receptions last year. The Utes return nine of 11 starters from the defense that blanked WSU in the second half of the 2020 game. Utah typically fields one of the best defenses in the Pac-12. They’ve got one of the better linebacking duos in the nation this year in Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell. “They’re considered I guess a defensive-minded team, but they’re not opposed to being explosive and putting points on the board,” Rolovich said. Utah also brings back all five offensive linemen who paved the way for 223 rushing yards and four touchdowns last year vs. the Cougs. The Utes are averaging 5.2 yards per carry this year. Utah boasts three receivers with over 100 yards apiece, and each of them stands over 6-foot-2. WSU has had trouble with lengthier pass-catchers this year. In all, the Utes bring back 19 of 22 starters. WSU has been blown out in consecutive years in Salt Lake City. The visitors have already had a troubling start to this season.

What happened last time? WSU and Utah are 9-9 in the all-time series, and 4-4 since the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011. In a similar fashion to their loss to USC last weekend, the Cougars collapsed in their 2020 finale in Salt Lake, conceding 38 unanswered second-half points and losing 45-28. WSU led 28-7 midway through the third quarter, but the Cougs committed four late turnovers and the Utes’ offense came to life.

Things to know1. The Utes are dedicating their 2021 season to Ty Jordan, who died in December from an accidental shooting. The running back from Texas was named the Pac-12’s conference newcomer of the year a day before his death. As a freshman in 2020, Jordan surfaced as a budding FBS star. He rushed for 597 yards and six touchdowns on 83 carries (an average of 7.2 yards per attempt) – adding 126 yards receiving – in five games. Every Utes player wears a helmet decal featuring the letters, “LLTJ” – Long Live Ty Jordan.

2. In coach Kyle Whittingham’s 16 full seasons in charge at Utah, the Utes have only twice recorded losing campaigns – they went 5-7 in 2012 and ‘13. Whittingham is the third-longest tenured active coach in the FBS, behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (23rd year) and Texas Christian’s Gary Patterson (22nd year). Whittingham was a Utes assistant from 1994-2004. He has coached at Utah when the program was in the Western Athletic Conference (1994-98), the Mountain West (1999-2010) and the Pac-12 (2011-present). Since Whittingham’s Utes joined the Pac-12, they have compiled a 76-46 record (45-41 in league play) and are 5-2 in bowl games. Whittingham’s Utes are 11-3 in bowl games overall. “He’s done a really good job with that program in transitioning to the Pac-12,” Rolovich said. “He has a reputation of being physical, tough, but they’ve got some explosive playmakers on offense, too.”

3. A few Utes players have connections to the Palouse. Freshman linebacker Lolani Langi enrolled with WSU this spring and participated in camp before entering the transfer portal and landing with Utah. Sophomore linebacker Andrew Mata’afa is cousins with Cougar great Hercules Mata’afa. Jonah Elliss, another freshman Utah linebacker, played his prep ball at Moscow High and was considered the top HS recruit in Idaho, per His father, Luther Elliss – the defensive line coach at Idaho – was an All-American Utes defensive tackle in the 1990s before a 10-year NFL career. Four Cougars hail from Utah: quarterback Cammon Cooper, edge-rusher Lawrence Falatea, and backup guards Rodrick Tialavea and Christian Hilborn. All of them are from the Salt Lake City metro area. WSU strength and conditioning coach Junior Salt started at guard for Utah from 2013-14.

4. This will be the sixth WSU/Utah matchup in the last seven years to be hosted in Salt Lake City. The Cougs’ last win at Utah came in 2017, when Hercules Mata’afa spearheaded a defensive gem in a 33-25 victory.