If Chris Petersen’s assessment of the 13th-ranked Utah Utes sounds familiar, it’s because the Utes look a lot like another strong, talented outfit that the Washington Huskies already played this season.
That was the Pac-12 North-leading Stanford Cardinal, which hammered the Huskies 31-14 two weeks ago in Palo Alto, California. Afterward, Petersen marveled at Stanford’s size and experience, acknowledging that UW would someday like to field a similar squad.
And scouting Utah inspired a similar thought from the Huskies coach.
“This is another type of program,” Petersen said, “that you’re going, ‘OK, this is kind of what we’d like our guys to look like here down the road.’ ”
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And that mostly starts with Utah’s defense, which hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since November 2014 — a span of 10 games — and allows opponents to rush for only 113.1 yards per game and 3.47 yards per carry, both of which rank atop the Pac-12.
The Utes (7-1, 4-1 in Pac-12) also allow only 21.4 points per game, a stingier scoring defense than every Pac-12 team but Washington.
“They’re not trying to fool you,” UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said. “They’re running similar schemes, all eight games. But they’re something to be reckoned with.”
So if the Huskies (4-4, 2-3) are to record their first victory over a ranked opponent at Husky Stadium since beating No. 19 Boise State in the 2013 season opener — and continue their progress toward a bowl bid — they’re likely going to have to win a slugfest. And probably move the ball a little better than they did against Stanford, which held the Huskies to two first downs in the first half.
There is reason to think Saturday’s game could be different, though, just as there is a reason the unranked Huskies are favored by 1 1/2 points against a top-15 team. For one, quarterback Jake Browning returned last week from a shoulder injury and had his best game of the season, throwing for 263 yards and four touchdowns, without an interception, in the Huskies’ 49-3 ransacking of Arizona.
And while Utah has succeeded in assembling a salty defense, the Utes won’t inspire much fear with their offense. Star tailback Devontae Booker, the Pac-12’s third-leading rusher with 966 yards and nine touchdowns, is of most concern. But Utah’s passing game is fairly average — led by senior quarterback Travis Wilson, it ranks sixth in the conference in pass efficiency — and the Utes rank eighth in the league in scoring offense (33.8 points per game).
Against Washington’s top-ranked scoring defense, the Utes might struggle to move the ball. But the Huskies have been less consistent than the Utes offensively, and have yet to impress against a talented defense.
“I think we’re going to have to do a good job of making plays on the ball,” said UW senior tight end Joshua Perkins. “We’re going to have one-on-one coverage, so the quarterback is going to give us a chance, so we just have to go out there and make plays for him.”
Petersen echoed that this week, emphasizing that “you’re going to have to win your one-on-one battles. There’s not a ton of zone coverage in there where you’re going to have these big seams.”
Utah ranks 14th nationally in turnover margin, at plus-8 through eight games.
“They play really, really hard,” Petersen said. “They know what they’re doing, and they’re not going to give you anything.”
At their best, that’s probably how Petersen would like this young Huskies team to be described by opponents.
And it’s how they’ll have to play on Saturday to take another important step toward bowl eligibility.
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NO. 13 UTAH (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) AT WASHINGTON (4-4, 2-3)
4:30 p.m., Husky Stadium
TV: Ch. 13 Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7 FM.
The series: Washington leads the all-time series 8-0.
What to watch: The biggest key for the Huskies will be protecting freshman quarterback Jake Browning, because the Utes average 2.63 sacks per game and pass protection has been an issue for UW this season. The Huskies mostly kept Browning upright last week against Arizona, but Utah presents a much more difficult challenge. … Expect the Utes to give the ball frequently to running back Devontae Booker, who is third in the Pac-12 in rushing and is by far Utah’s best offensive weapon. His 200 rushing attempts lead the league. … Sophomore defensive tackle Elijah Qualls, who injured his ankle on the first possession of the game last week against Arizona, has a chance to play, defensive line coach Jeff Choate said. Could be a game-time decision. … This game features the top two sack leaders in the Pac-12: UW linebacker Travis Feeney, who leads the league with 6.5, and Utah defensive end Pita Taumoepenu, who has 6.0.
The pick: Utah 24, Washington 17.
Tailback is receiving weapon, too, and had 2 TDs last week
Likely hasn’t seen a defense as good as Utah’s
Hurt ankle against Arizona, but could play
Played well in Qualls’ absence last week vs. Arizona
Utes’ best offensive player (966 yards rushing, 9 TDs)
Completes 68.9 percent of his passes
Second in Pac-12 with six sacks
75 tackles, 10 tackles for loss