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Sports >  WSU football

First look: Washington State, fresh off its bye week, stages early-week matchup with Pac-12 heavyweight Utah

Oct. 23, 2022 Updated Sun., Oct. 23, 2022 at 8:22 p.m.

Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward gestures to the bench during a Pac-12 game against USC on Oct. 8 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward gestures to the bench during a Pac-12 game against USC on Oct. 8 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

What is it? No. 15 Utah (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) and Washington State (4-3, 1-3), both coming off a bye week, meet in Pullman for an early-week Pac-12 matchup featuring one of the conference’s rising teams – the Utes beat No. 7 USC on Oct. 15 – and a Cougar squad looking to end its midseason slide.

Where is it? The Cougars return home to Gesa Field after dropping two consecutive games on the road.

When is it? Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Thursday. Forecasts call for temperatures in the mid-30s.

Where can I watch it? WSU will take part in a nationally televised game for the fourth time this season. FOX Sports 1 will carry the broadcast.

Who is favored? The Utes opened as 7-point favorites.

How did they fare last week? The reigning Pac-12 champion Utes registered their best win of the season Oct. 15 and toted momentum into their bye week.

All-conference Utah quarterback Cameron Rising led a 75-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter against the previously unbeaten Trojans. The possession ended in a touchdown and a go-ahead two-point conversion with less than a minute to play. The Utes prevailed 43-42 in a shootout at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

While Utah surged into its bye on a high note, the Cougars limped into the week off after their most disappointing effort of the season. WSU’s offense fell flat and the Cougars’ rushing defense couldn’t hold up during Oregon State’s 24-10 win Oct. 15.

“I didn’t like our energy that Saturday, and I didn’t like the details of how we prepared them as coaches,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said Thursday after practice at Rogers Field. “We took a hard look at some ‘self-scout’ – where we need to improve.”

The Cougars surrendered six sacks. WSU has allowed 26 sacks this season. Only six other FBS teams have yielded 26 or more sacks this year. The Cougar defense had trouble containing OSU’s rushing game.

“Our protection needs to get better,” Dickert said. “I thought we were loose last Saturday, defensively, with some alignments and finishes. Those are things we can control as coaches. I’m not going to sit here and put all that on the players. There are things those guys can do better and we’ll address those issues. At the end of the day, my No. 1 job is to get the team prepared.”

Cougars use bye week to reenergize, recruit

The Cougars came into their bye week on a two-game skid – they went quiet in the second half of a 30-14 loss to USC on Oct. 8 – and have lost three of their past four games. WSU needed the rest.

“We gotta get our bodies right. We gotta recover from the past seven weeks,” linebacker Francisco Mauigoa said Thursday. “I feel energized, compared to other days where we were just banged up, then coming back to practice. That’s just a part of football. Right now, we’re on that part where we just gotta recover.”

The Cougars took Monday and Friday off this week to “get away from the building a little bit, catch up on school work,” Dickert said. WSU conducted light practices Tuesday and Saturday. Dickert called the Wednesday and Thursday sessions “very spirited.”

“This team is focused,” he added. “They want to get better. We still got a lot to play for. We want to extend our season.”

For Cougar coaches, there hasn’t been much idle time this week .

“The bye week, I tell my wife, ‘It sounds good, but it’s more hectic than ever,’” Dickert said. “I’ve been grinding through Utah prep. I’ve been grinding through a lot of ‘self-scout’ stuff, then I hit the road (Thursday) to the west side to see a couple of games I’m really, really excited about. … We got coaches all over the country seeing a lot of our verbal commitments, as well as seeing some prospects that we need to get to close out this class.”

Dickert visited a handful of high schools in western Washington this weekend and was in attendance for two games: Auburn Riverside vs. Auburn Mountainview and Glacier Peak (Snohomish) vs. Jackson (Mill Creek).

Scouting UtahThe Utes, the preseason favorites to repeat as Pac-12 champions, are right back in the middle of the conversation after their victory over USC.

Utah opened its season with a tight loss at Florida, then rattled off four consecutive blowout wins – including a 42-16 beatdown of Oregon State – before losing 42-32 at UCLA on Oct. 8.

Typically a defensive-minded program under longtime coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah boasts one of the most productive offensive units in the Pac-12.

The Utes’ balanced offense sits in the top five of the conference’s rankings in every major statistical category. Utah’s scoring offense (40.7 points per game) and total offense (472.7 yards per game) are both top-25 marks nationally.

Led by a star QB in Rising, the Utes’ backfield also includes running back Tavion Thomas, a preseason all-conference first-team pick.

Rising has passed for 1,855 yards and 15 touchdowns against three interceptions with a 68.8% completion rate, adding 308 yards on the ground and six rushing TDs.

Thomas, whose status for Thursday is uncertain for unspecified reasons, has 414 yards and five touchdowns for a Utah ground game that averages 192 yards per game and leads the conference with 19 touchdowns.

Rising’s favorite target, tight end Dalton Kincaid, has piled up 558 yards and six touchdowns on 39 catches. Kincaid is filling in nicely for Brant Kuithe, an All-Pac-12 tight end who suffered a season-ending injury last month.

Utah’s defense allowed 42 points and more than 500 yards in each of its past two games but held the Trojans’ offense under 200 yards in the second half of the Utes’ come-from-behind win.

“Figuring out why we’re deficient on defense and simplifying things, getting our players in the right frame of mind,” Whittingham told local reporters earlier this week when asked about his priorities during the bye week.

Statistically, Utah’s defense is sound. The unit ranks first in the Pac-12 in passing defense (208.1 yards per game), second in total defense (350.1) and fourth in scoring defense (22.3 ppg). But the Utes have shown lapses in pass coverage in recent weeks, conceding several big plays – including passes of 70, 65 and 63 yards.

The Utes’ defense is led by an All-American candidate in cornerback Clark Phillips III, who has recorded five of the team’s 10 interceptions. Utah’s front seven, traditionally a strength of the team, is pressuring opposing quarterbacks at a solid rate (15 sacks) but has been relatively inconsistent in stopping the run, ceding 142 rushing yards per game.

Rushing defense has been a weakness for the Utes at times. But the Cougars’ ground game has been the least productive in the Pac-12 by a considerable margin, averaging 89.4 yards per game – 20 fewer yards per game than Colorado, which ranks 11th in the conference in rushing offense. WSU is playing without starting running back Nakia Watson for an indefinite stretch after he suffered an injury Oct. 8 at USC. The Cougars will presumably lean on freshmen Jaylen Jenkins and Dylan Paine going forward. Tailback Kannon Katzer, another freshman backup, entered the transfer portal this week.

WSU’s rushing defense will be tested after giving up a season-high 203 yards against OSU. The Cougars have allowed more than 150 rushing yards in three of their past four games. WSU appears to have made progress in its passing coverage since allowing 446 yards to Oregon QB Bo Nix on Sept. 24. The Cougars held their last two opponents under 200 yards through the air. Rising has been exceptionally efficient this year and he’s coming off a game in which he completed 30 of 44 passes for 415 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers.

Utah’s high-scoring offense will be up against a Cougar defense that sits atop the conference rankings at 20.7 points allowed per game.

Rising has taken just five sacks. WSU, one of the nation’s most productive teams in sacks (20) and tackles for loss (52), managed just two sacks and eight TFLs combined in its past two games.

Yet defense wasn’t the primary concern for WSU during its two-game slide. The Cougar offense lacked any semblance of rhythm for long stretches in those matchups. The most glaring issue: the offensive line’s inability to protect quarterback Cameron Ward, who absorbed 11 sacks in the past two games. Ward completed less than 50% of his passes versus OSU.

“We’ve got to coach better technique,” Dickert said of the O-line. “We gotta execute better. There are missed assignments in protection and there’s been too many of those.

“We have to be able to get through multiple progressions in the pass game without getting our eyes down and scrambling. … Part of it is being more multiple on third down, emphasizing our screen game and running when we need to. I think the run game has (had) highs and lows. It hasn’t been consistent. That’s the story with where we’re at right now. Offensively, we gotta be more consistent, and it starts with me.”

What happened last time?

Utah coughed up seven fumbles, but WSU’s offense couldn’t capitalize in a 24-13 Utes win on Sept. 25, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Phillips returned an interception from WSU quarterback Jarrett Guarantano – starting in place of the injured Jayden de Laura – for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to seal the result and send the Cougars to a 1-3 record.

Things to know

1. WSU tinkered with its receiver lineup against Oregon State. The Cougars shifted outside receiver De’Zhaun Stribling to the slot position a week after senior slotback Renard Bell sustained an arm injury that will keep him sidelined indefinitely. The Cougs called upon true freshman outside receiver Leyton Smithson to make his first-career start. Searching for an effective group, WSU rotated its receivers steadily, and eight of them registered catches versus the Beavers. Bell has “taken on a big role, basically being a coach now,” said backup slot Orion Peters. “During meetings, he’s writing notes down for each receiver on what they need to improve on and how to do it. (Bell) always brings a ton of energy. … As far as adjustments, we just changed the depth chart around a little bit to try and find the best possible corps.”

2. Backup offensive tackle Fa’alili Fa’amoe went down with an ankle injury late in the game against Oregon State. Fa’amoe was held out of practice early this week, but Dickert said the freshman would return to the field for Saturday’s exercise. Fa’amoe made his first-career start Oct. 15, lining up at right tackle versus the Beavers. WSU shifted right tackle Ma’ake Fifita to right guard to make up for the absence of starting guard Grant Stephens, who missed the first half due to a targeting penalty in the previous game. When Stephens returned to the lineup after halftime, the Cougars left Fa’amoe on the field and sent Fifita to the bench. A midseason position battle may be underway on WSU’s offensive line.

3. The Utes have a 10-9 lead in their series history with WSU. Since joining the Pac-12 in 2010, Utah is 5-4 versus the Cougars. The Utes have won three consecutive games in the series since 2019 – all in Salt Lake City. Utah is visiting Pullman for the first time since Sept. 29, 2018, a 28-24 WSU win.

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