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University of Washington Huskies Football

Things to watch: Against Utah, UW’s struggling defense needs to step up for Huskies to remain unbeaten

By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Here are three things to watch when No. 5 Washington (9-0) hosts No. 13 Utah (7-2) on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in Husky Stadium. The Huskies are favored by nine points and the game will be broadcast on Fox 28.

Winning up front

Utah is a program with an earned reputation for relentless physical play. Can the Huskies handle it? A week after rushing for 316 yards and 7.5 yards per carry against the tattered remains of USC, Washington will encounter a Utah defense ranked sixth nationally in rushing (81.22 yards allowed per game) and 14th in opponent yards per carry (3.05). On the other side, UW’s run defense disintegrated in Los Angeles, surrendering 203 rushing yards with 7.5 yards per carry and three touchdowns to a Trojans team missing its starting running back. Meanwhile, four Utes – Ja’Quinden Jackson, Jaylon Glover, Sione Vaki and Nate Johnson – all tout at least 232 rushing yards. To stay undefeated, the Huskies have to win a four-quarter fistfight first.

Bend … and break?

UW’s defense has struggled mightily in recent weeks, conceding 33 points to Stanford and 42 more to USC. But the Huskies have also made game-saving plays – an interception against Arizona, three fourth-down stops against Oregon, an 89-yard pick-six against Arizona State, a forced fumble and three sacks against USC. UW opponents have gone for it on fourth down 25 times against UW, less than just two teams in the nation. Given the trends, UW’s defense will bend again. Will it break? And will a Utes offense that has surrendered just six turnovers this season – fifth nationally – finally stumble? Speaking of, UW quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has also surrendered a red-zone interception in three consecutive games. Penix needs to snap that streak.

Protecting Penix

If it seems like this is a standing key to every UW football game … there’s a reason for that. Penix’s health is paramount, and even with a reconfigured offensive line, the Huskies have allowed just six sacks in nine games (third in the nation). With time to work and one of the nation’s most talented group of targets, Penix’s production is unparalleled. (His 355.7 passing yards per game leads the country by a wide margin.) But Utah’s defense has consistently caused chaos, ranking 13th in the nation with 29 sacks. On the other side, UW edge Bralen Trice has produced 49 pressures (according to Pro Football Focus) but has managed just three sacks. If Trice can finish plays, that’ll help a beleaguered UW defense.

Vorel’s prediction

Washington continues to find a way. Under second-year coach Kalen DeBoer, UW has won 16 consecutive games. That includes a 12-0 mark inside Husky Stadium, where Utah will attempt to snap the streak. This Husky team is tremendously fun and flawed, with an offense made for national showcases and a defense made to just get by. With Caleb Williams in the rearview mirror, the Huskies will sell out to stop the run and dare Bryson Barnes to beat them. After overcoming the flu, Penix will again be at his best. Same as against Oregon, a ravenous home crowd and timely offensive outbursts will help deliver Washington another ranked win.

Final score: Huskies 35, Utes 31