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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State, seeking revitalizing win, hosts confident Utah team for early-week Pac-12 showdown

Oct. 26, 2022 Updated Thu., Oct. 27, 2022 at 2:35 p.m.

PULLMAN – The Utah Utes went into their bye week on a high note after rallying past a Southern California team ranked in the top 10.

The Washington State Cougars trudged into their bye week at a low point of the season after dropping back-to-back games.

“I feel like that bye week, it was very needed for us,” Cougars receiver Donovan Ollie said. “We needed to regroup, come back together and get it going again.”

The 14th-ranked Utes (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) are stocked with midseason momentum and gaining ground in the Pac-12 race.

The Cougars (4-3, 1-3) have slipped off pace after a hot start to their season.

Coming off a week of rest, will the Utes build upon their most impressive performance of the season and stay in contention for another conference title?

Can the Cougars catch Utah in a trap game and pull off a revitalizing upset win on a bitter Thursday night in Pullman?

WSU and Utah meet in cold conditions at 7 p.m. on Gesa Field for a promising edition of “Pac-12 After Dark.”

Utah, the reigning Pac-12 champion, is a 7.5-point favorite over WSU. In their most recent game, the Utes rolled up 562 yards in a 43-42 comeback win over the previously unbeaten USC Trojans.

“Utah is the king of the conference until someone knocks them off,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said. “That’s how we’re approaching it. That’s how everyone on the team should approach it. They have earned that through hard work, development and how physical they are at the point of attack.”

Under longtime coach Kyle Whittingham, the Utes have typically been a defensive-minded outfit with a run-heavy offense. To be sure, Utah is still an effective rushing team and its defense shouldn’t be overlooked. But the program’s identity seems to have changed somewhat.

Utah is headlined by a star quarterback in Cameron Rising, an all-conference first-teamer who has been productive through the air and on the ground.

“I think Utah is known for running the ball. I think they want to run the ball. That’s where it starts,” Dickert said. “They are very capable, as they have proven in the last game, beating USC (Rising passed for 424 yards), that they can throw the ball with the best of them.

“If they need to throw it 40-plus times, I think they have the personnel and ability to do that.”

The Cougars’ defense is keying in on Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid, an All-American candidate who owns the top receiving grade among all receivers and TEs in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus.

“The guy just caught 16 passes for 200-plus yards (versus USC),” Dickert said. “The skill set is obviously next-level. I don’t think you shut down a guy like that, but we gotta know where he’s at.”

Starting Utah running back Tavion Thomas’ status for Thursday is unknown for reasons that remain unclear. That’s welcome news for a WSU rushing defense that is coming off its two worst games, allowing 181 yards in a 30-14 loss to USC and yielding 203 yards in a 24-10 defeat at Oregon State.

“We all have to be better than we were,” Cougars linebacker Daiyan Henley said. “We know that.

“We have to shake off that loss (to OSU). … We’re going to make sure we don’t dwell on that loss and we come back harder this week.”

The Utes’ ground game doesn’t feature the depth and consistency of years past, but Utah is putting points on the board at a high clip. The Utes are one of the Pac-12’s top scoring teams, averaging over 40.7 points per game – 16th nationally. WSU’s defense should offer a challenge.

“They’re playing very well on defense,” Whittingham said of the Cougars. “In fact, they are No. 1 in the conference in points allowed (20.7 ppg), which is really the bottom line, the most important stat defensively.”

Utah’s defense has given up 42 points and over 500 yards of offense in each of its past two games. But WSU’s offense is coming off its two most disappointing showings of the season. The Cougars managed only seven second-half points combined against USC and OSU.

“We’re not built as an offense yet to say, ‘We’re down 14 points in the fourth quarter and we just need to throw it every time,’ ” Dickert said. “There is an energy and life that we need to play with and I’ve talked about how we fell short.”

Stopping the run has been an issue for the Utes. Their passing defense has been much more reliable. Utah leads the Pac-12 at just 208.1 passing yards allowed per game.

The Cougars’ ground game has been largely ineffective this season. WSU is often forced to lean on QB Cameron Ward.

“It’ll be a test for our secondary,” Whittingham said. “They’re primarily a throwing team. They’re not getting a whole bunch done in the run game (89.4 yards per game) … but they’re getting quite a bit of production throwing the football (280.3 yards per game).”

That is, when Ward has time to throw. The sophomore transfer has taken a conference-most 26 sacks behind a embattled offensive line. He felt steady pressure during the past two games, absorbing 11 sacks.

“We gotta give Cam some time and we gotta have the ability to take the ball down the field,” Dickert said. “I think that will be an emphasis for our success (versus Utah). … We just can’t have guys running free through the line of scrimmage.”

Shoring up the offensive line was a priority for WSU in its bye week. The Cougars shifted some pieces around, moving Ma’ake Fifita from right tackle to right guard and testing guard Grant Stephens at the tackle position.

Negative plays have plagued the Cougars in recent weeks. WSU’s offense will need a major turnaround if it hopes to sustain drives against an aggressive Utah defense and keep pace with the Utes’ high-powered offense.

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