No. 13 Utah (7-1, 4-1 in Pac-12) at Washington (4-4, 2-3 in Pac-12)
4:30 p.m. Saturday, Husky Stadium
Radio: 1000 AM / 97.7 FM
The line: UW by 1.5
Thirteen days ago, the Huskies were licking their proverbial wounds after a 31-14 pasting at Stanford, their worst offensive performance in a season that has so far been marked by offensive inconsistency. Their starting quarterback was hurt, two of their top linebackers were banged up, and the season appeared to be at a sort of crossroads.
But then Jake Browning got healthy, Arizona came to town, and after the Huskies rebounded with a 49-3 blowout at Husky Stadium, they now find themselves favored by 1.5 points this week over the visiting Utah Utes, who lead the Pac-12 South and are ranked 13th in the country.
And if the Huskies are going to win, it will likely have to be in a slugfest.
Utah’s defense is not Arizona’s defense -- which is to say, Utah’s defense is pretty good. The Utes rank 25th in the country in yards-per-rush allowed, yielding only 3.47 yards per carry, and they haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Arizona’s Nick Wilson went for 218 yards and three touchdowns on Nov. 22, 2014. That’s a span of 10 games (hat tip to the AP’s Tim Booth for digging that one up).
They also rank fourth in the Pac-12 in yards-per-play allowed, second in scoring defense (21.4 points per game), and they’re fifth in the Pac-12 in sacks with 2.63 per game (and, against Pac-12 competition only, they lead the league in yards-per-play allowed with 5.13. The Huskies are second at 5.27).
So this will be another Stanford-like challenge for Browning and the Huskies’ offense. UW’s coaches praise Utah’s physical, disciplined style of play, again describing the Utes as a team that won’t “give” you much on either side of the ball.
Which means UW’s defense will again have to play pretty stellar to pull this one off.
The good news for the Huskies is that Utah’s offense, outside of star tailback Devontae Booker, is nothing special. The Utes rank 39th nationally in pass efficiency rating, but just 57th in yards per attempt. And the Huskies actually rank well ahead of them in offensive yards per play, at 45th, compared to Utah’s ranking of T-72nd (though the Utes average 6.0 yards per play against Pac-12 competition).
Utah quarterback Travis Wilson has been pretty accurate, completing 68.9 percent of his passes. But the Utes’ lone loss to USC was fueled in big part by the three interceptions Wilson threw to Trojans linebacker Cameron Smith, who returned one of those picks for a touchdown and nearly took another to the house, too. So the key for the Huskies will be to slow Booker enough to force the Utes into passing situations, then pressure Wilson enough to force him into some bad decisions. Hard to see the Huskies winning without forcing a turnover or two. And they’ll have to keep an eye on Wilson as a runner, too, because he’ll take off and pick up a first down if he can’t find anyone open.
It’s clear the Huskies are making progress, as coach Chris Petersen figured his young team would. But I think Utah’s defense carries it to a close win.
The pick: Utah 24, Washington 17.
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple