Utah (6-4, 3-4) takes its three-game win streak to the apple state Saturday possibly unsure of what exactly to expect from the Washington State Cougars (4-6, 2-5). Coming off a huge 37-27 upset victory over Arizona State, who had been the front-runner to win the South division prior to the loss, Washington State has found themselves with a rare bout of momentum heading into it's final home game, which is also Senior Day.
For Washington State, the win snapped a five-game losing streak, indicative of their recently discovered split personality, and accounting for the Utes' uncertainty about which team to expect.
Crucial to the surprising victory over the Sun Devils was the play of freshman Connor Halliday who made a huge splash in the win, as well as a spot in the annals of the former Pac-10 history.
Coming off the bench, Halliday threw for 494 yards on 27-36 passing with 4 TDs against Arizona State, setting a freshman record for single-game passing yards. The mark eclipsed a 1990 Drew Bledsoe performance against Cal in which he threw for 385 yards.
Halliday's 494 yards is the most thrown by any Pac-12 quarterback in the 2011 season, is the most ever thrown by a Pac-10 or Pac-12 freshman quarterback and represents the tenth best performance ever in conference history.
"Based on the one game, [Halliday] appears to be like every other Pac-12 quarterback we've faced," head coach Kyle Whittingham remarked. "His performance in [the ASU game] was tremendous, and we're going to have the same challenge this week that we've had every other week in this league. A prototypical quarterback with all the physical tools, and a prolific receiver to throw to."
In that regard, Utah doesn't have to alter it's defensive game plan much from that of the recent Arizona victory in which Utah faced a prolific Wildcat passing game and the nation's completions leader in Nick Foles.
"It's going to look a lot like what we did against Arizona, because the offenses are similar," Whittingham said.
Utah fared well against the Wildcats, but past, recent success doesn't find them complacent in their preparations for Washington State. For, the Utes, especially on defense, are on somewhat of a mission.
"A six win season here isn't good enough, and it isn't good enough for our team. We had high expectations of ourselves, and that didn't happen.We can't look back now and say we wish we did this in that game, or whatever," senior Conroy Black explained. "All we can do is look forward and control what we can control. We can control the two games we have ahead of us; starting with Washington State. We're taking it seriously, and ramping up our preparations."
Xs and Os
Defensively, Utah's prowess is well known by now, and quantify into some impressive national and conference rankings. Utah ranks no lower than fourth in the nation in any given defensive category and is in the top 30 in every category but passing defense, which ranks 76th nationally.
Allowing 335.70 yards per game, Utah is third in-conference and 27th in the nation in total defense. Utah leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing just 19.2 ppg, good for 17th nationally. Making John White's feats all the more impressive, Utah gives up just 100.8 yards rushing per game, which is good for only third in the Pac-12, but ninth in the nation. In the secondary, the Utes rank fourth in the conference and 76th nationally, giving up an average of 234 yards per game.
Conversely, Washington State's offense is good for 431.1 yards per game, ranking it 38th in the country and sixth in the Pac-12. Not a running team, Wazzu manages to scrape up 112 yards per game on the ground putting them at ninth and 103 respectively in the conference and country.
The strength then, lies in the aerial attack, made all the more potent with Halliday running the show. Washington State ranks in the top ten, currently at nine in passing offense with 318.7 yards per game through the air. That figure is good for second in the conference behind Arizona and Nick Foles.
The Cougars boast one elite receiver in sophomore Marquess Wilson, who had a monster game against Arizona State with eight receptions for 223 yards and three touchdowns. With that performance, Wilson also captured the Cougars' single-season record in receiving yards with 1,197. Wilson leads the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game with 119.7, and is third in receptions per game with 6.7.
The match-ups, as indicated by Whittingham, are indeed similar to those of the Arizona game; prolific Wazzu passing versus a dominating defense. Washington State's defense, however, doesn't rank as poorly as Arizona's did, but rather finds itself somewhere near the middle-to-lower end of the conference in most defensive categories.
The Cougars rank eighth in the conference in total defense, giving up 412.4 yards per game, which ranks 84th in the nation. WSU gives up an average of 155.8 yards of rushing per game, also good for eighth in the Pac-12, and 90th in the nation. Against the pass, Wazzu gives up 256.6 yards per game, good for seventh in conference and 94th in the country.
Numbers, averages and rankings can be deceiving, however as Utah's rushing offense averages 137.8 yards per game, also good for eighth in the Pac-12 and 79th in the nation, rankings no one would have guessed considering the season Utah running back John White is having.
In the passing game, Utah ranks dead last and near the bottom in the nation at 102nd with an average of 170.2 yards per game, and worse in the total offense category, averaging 307.3 yards per game. That statistic ranks them last in the Pac-12 and 109th in the country.
The facts don't bother Utah quarterback Jon Hays as long as the wins keep coming.
"It's going to be hard for guys to score more than three times on our defense," Hays commented after the UCLA win.
The remark comes from comments floating around the program from almost day one, in which defensive members reportedly told then quarterback Jordan Wynn that all the offense had to do was put up 20 points, and they would take care of the rest.
The comment has manifested itself in several similar comments throughout the season, including the previous quote from Hays.
Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei acknowledged the strength of the defense while staying humble.
"We know what we have to do, and that is help the offense out. The coaches just said not to worry about what the offense is doing or not doing," said Lotulelei. "We have our job to do, and that's all we can focus on. So far, I think we've been handling it and I'm proud of what our defense has done. It's kept us in games, and the offense has done enough to win lately."
While the blueprint for success and the subsequent numbers and statistics aren't pretty Utah has found a groove, and is riding it all the way to a hopefully respectful bowl destination and opponent.
"It's on our minds, because we still have a chance to get a pretty good bowl, with a respected opponent," said Black. "A bowl win is the right way to end our careers here, and send the other guys into next season with good momentum. But to get a respected opponent would help take away some of the disappointment of the season."
While several scenarios have yet to play out, Utah should benefit from recent transpirations around the country. Boise State's loss to TCU and Oregon's defeat of Stanford provide the opportunity for the Pac-12 to send two teams to the BCS; one as conference champion, and one at-large bid. Conceivably, Oregon would represent the conference in the Rose Bowl, with Stanford looking strong for an at-large bid.
If that scenario plays out, the Utes could avoid a repeat of last season's Las Vegas Bowl, and a possible re-match against Boise State, which is a remote, if not unlikely possibility. Depending on the remaining two games, Utah still has a chance to reach the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Army. Both the Holiday and Alamo bowls pit a Pac-12 team against a Big-12 opponent, while the Sun Bowl matches up the ACC and Pac-12.
Assuming Utah wins out, some national pundits are throwing around possible Utah-Texas or Utah-Missouri match-ups in either the Holiday or Alamo Bowl, which could indeed reinvigorate the Utah fan-base, and provide some solace to a season that started out rocky.
While bowl games and match-ups start to appear around the fringes of mid-to-lat November games, the Utes insist that their mind is focused on one thing, and one thing alone: a win at Washington State.
"We've worked to hard to get caught up in that, or let ourselves become distracted," Black said. "All we're thinking about is Washington State right now. If we don't, we lose our heads and all of that other stuff we want at the end goes away. It's just Washington State right now. Then Colorado after that."
The Utes fly into Pullman Friday afternoon via charter jet for the Saturday, 3 PM MST kickoff versus flying into Spokane and making the two+ hour drive to Pullman that most fans face. The series with Wazzu stands at 5-5, with the Cougars emerging victorious from the teams' last meeting in Salt Lake City in 2000. Washington State won the contest 38-21 to pull even in the series. Utah's tied record with Washington State represents only the second team in the Pac-12 in which it does not have a losing record. Arizona is the only school in the Pac-12 in which Utah owns a winning record.
Utah will return to Salt Lake City to prepare for a Friday game against their newly-anointed rival Colorado in what many are touting as "The Rumble in the Rockies" in an attempt to rile emotions and evoke feelings of rivalry.
With the short week ahead, the Utes will eliminate its ritual day off, and still battle the distraction of Thanksgiving Day just prior to Friday's earlier-than-normal 1 PM MST kickoff.