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Sports >  WSU football

Two-minute drill: Keys to victory for Washington State against No. 14 Utah

Oct. 26, 2022 Updated Wed., Oct. 26, 2022 at 5:28 p.m.

PULLMAN – Washington State coach Jake Dickert made the rounds this week. He stopped by Pullman businesses, checked in with student-life groups and introduced himself to various WSU classes, professors and administrators.

He wanted to remind everyone, in person, to show up at Gesa Field on Thursday night in support of a Cougars team that could use a boost. WSU, looking to snap a two-game skid, has a chance to change the outlook of its season when it hosts No. 14 Utah at 7 p.m.

“To have the defending Pac-12 champions come into our place, what an opportunity to show who we are as Cougs,” Dickert said. “My question is: Why not show up? We’ve been in Pullman businesses, we have been with the student body, we have been with Greek life.

“Why not be here? Why not cheer on this team? Why not see this environment and make it something special, and see what we can do?”

When Washington State has the ball …

The Cougars’ offense had been up and down through the first five games of the season. In the past two games, WSU’s Air Raid system flopped, totaling seven points combined in the second halves of losses to USC and Oregon State.

The Cougars rank 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (24.6 ppg) and total offense (369.7 yards per game).

The most glaring issue: pressure in the face of quarterback Cameron Ward, who has absorbed a conference-high 26 sacks (11 in the past two games).

The Cougars are tinkering with the right side of their offensive line in an attempt to stabilize the group ahead of their matchup with a strong defensive front from Utah that features a couple of All-Pac-12 stars in Junior Tafuna and Van Fillinger.

WSU relieved Ma’ake Fifita from his duties at right tackle, which will be adopted by either Grant Stephens – WSU’s starting right guard – or backup Fa’alili Fa’amoe.

WSU also will send out a new-look group of receivers for the second consecutive game. Starting outside receiver De’Zhaun Stribling has been moved to the slotback position to make up for the loss of senior Renard Bell, who is sidelined indefinitely due to an arm injury. True freshman Leyton Smithson is expected to make his second career start in place of Stribling.

Utah had its share of slipups in downfield coverage in recent weeks, but the Utes still boast the top passing defense in the conference at 208.1 yards allowed per game and 10 interceptions – five from cornerback Clark Phillips III.

Ward passed for more than 300 yards in three of his past four games but threw more than 40 incompletions combined in the last two.

“Cam owns his part in it, but it is (about) protecting him, it’s running the right routes, it’s establishing the run, it’s not having negative plays,” Dickert said.

The Cougars are a pass-heavy team out of necessity – their ground game has too often been stuffed in the backfield. WSU ranks last in the conference in most statistical rushing categories.

It would seem unlikely that the Cougars take advantage of a Utah rushing defense that has been uncharacteristically porous, surrendering 142 yards per game. The Utes were challenged on the ground in their past two games against UCLA and USC. Utah allowed 42 points and over 500 yards of offense in each game but held the Trojans under 200 yards in the second half.

“Pure aggressiveness,” Dickert said when asked to define Utah’s defensive identity. “From how they get off the ball, to how they rush the passer (15 sacks), to man coverage in the middle of the field – they are an aggressive outfit.”

WSU is still without starting running back Nakia Watson, who suffered an undisclosed injury against USC and will stay sidelined indefinitely. Dickert confirmed that freshmen Jaylen Jenkins and Dylan Paine will shoulder the workload at tailback. True freshman Djouvensky Schlenbaker, who has yet to play this season, is also in the mix for reps.

When Utah has the ball …

Utah’s offense – traditionally a run-heavy system – has transformed into a high-scoring unit captained by one of the Pac-12’s elite quarterbacks in Cameron Rising.

The Utes enjoy a top-25 offense in the nation in scoring (40.7 points) and yardage (472.7). Rising shredded No. 7 USC for 415 yards, and Utah kept pace with the Trojans’ prolific offense in a 43-42 Utes win Oct. 15.

Rising, an all-conference first-teamer last year, is an efficient passer and a dangerous scrambler who rarely makes mental mistakes. He has thrown for 1,855 yards and 15 touchdowns with three picks on a 69% completion rate, and has run for 308 yards and six TDs.

“Their quarterback, on tape, is the No. 1 competitor that I have seen,” Dickert said.

“This guy does it all. If they need to run him 20 times, he will do that and he will do it physically. If he needs to throw it 40 times, he will do it.”

Atop the Cougars’ scout sheet is Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid, who had 234 yards on 16 catches versus USC. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior presents matchup issues for any defense.

“I know I would (focus on Kincaid) if I was a defensive coordinator,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “That’d be a primary objective. If you look at our tape and particularly the last game and saw what he was able to accomplish … (You would) say, ‘If you’re going to beat us, it’s gotta be some other way than the tight end catching 16 balls.’

“I don’t know if you can completely take him out of the game, but I’m sure they’ll try to slow him down.”

The Utes are averaging 192.4 rushing yards per contest, good for third in the Pac-12. Yet they’re not deep at the tailback position and not consistently effective on the ground, as they have been in recent memory. Tavion Thomas, a first-team preseason all-conference pick, is questionable to play for unspecified reasons.

“We’re not as productive in the run game this year as we have been in years past,” Whittingham said. “But on the other side of that, we’re throwing the ball pretty darn good. As long as you’re getting it done one way or the other, but we seem to be at our best when we’re running the ball effectively, which opens up the play-action game.”

WSU’s defense has produced a mixed bag of results over the past month. The Cougars appear to have made progress in their ability to contain passing attacks. Meanwhile, their rushing defense started to slip, allowing 181 yards against USC and 203 versus Oregon State.

“We can’t let up explosive plays,” WSU edge Ron Stone Jr. said of the rushing defense. “We have to be more physical consistently. We definitely have the ability to be a great run defense, and we’ve shown that. But then we also have the ability to not be one. Ultimately, if we don’t have guys doing their job, then we’re going to have games like we’ve had in weeks prior.”

Utah’s offensive line is sturdy, with only five sacks given up and 17 tackles for loss allowed in the ground game.

Those strengths counter the Cougars, who are among the nation’s best squads in TFLs (52) and sacks (20).

The Utes have committed just seven turnovers.

“We have to create more turnovers and be more dominant in that area of the game,” WSU linebacker Daiyan Henley said. The Cougars’ defense has forced eight takeaways.

The Cougars sit first in the Pac-12 at 20.7 points allowed per game.

WSU on Thursdays

The Cougars will take part in the program’s 46th Thursday game in program history. WSU holds a 25-18-2 record when playing on Thursdays.

The Cougars last played a regular-season game on a Thursday in 2014, opening their season with a 41-38 loss to Rutgers in Seattle.

The year before, WSU hosted Arizona State for a Thursday game on Halloween and lost 55-21.

“It kinda simulates in your mind like it’s NFL night,” Henley said. “Usually, we get to watch something on Thursday. To play on Thursday, it feels great. Then we get a full weekend.”

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