Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Leki Fotu and John Penisini
- Geoff Schwartz is relying on an improved Utah offense, despite injuries, and stellar special teams to help the Utes cover against Washington on Friday night in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
- Utah should also be extra motivated in its first Pac-12 Championship Game, while the Huskies are coming off an emotional win over Washington State.
Outside of the work I do here, I have a daily radio show on the Pac-12 Sirius channel. So when I saw the line for the Pac-12 Championship Game between Utah and Washington anywhere between Utes +5 and +6, I figured I needed to share my strong thoughts on this contest.
While Washington is old reliable in the conference, Utah has revitalized its offense and is well-equipped to keep this game close.
The two teams have taken different paths here. Washington was the preseason favorite to win the conference and has been the steadiest team in the league. It lost early to Auburn, a close game at bitter rival Oregon on a missed kick before the end of regulation and a weird game at Cal to finish 9-3. The Huskies are excellent on defense, ranking No. 8 in the S&P+ index and are 10th in points per possession. They’re 12th in explosive plays and fourth in IsoPPP+.
Washington relies on its defense to set the tempo, generate turnovers and give its offense short fields to work on. The offense is balanced with senior quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin, the first player in Pac-12 history to have four consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. The Huskies excel with big plays, ranking 14th in plays of 20-plus yards.
On the road/neutral site, Washington only averages 22 points per game, while at home it’s 33.
While the mindset of this team feels conservative, it isn’t. Peterson is famously known — think back to Boise State-Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl — for his trick plays. Even last week, in the Apple Cup, Peterson dialed up a double pass to score a touchdown in a driving snow storm. So they will have something drawn up for Utes, and that should be considered here.
Utah and Washington have already met this season, when the Huskies won 21-7 in mid-September. They forced three Utah turnovers and held the Utes offense in check. On offense, Gaskin had 30 rush attempts for 143 yards, while Browning threw for only 155 yards.
That’s the game you’d expect from Washington, and I expect that game from the Huskies on Friday night in Levi Stadium. However, I don’t expect that same performance from Utah, especially on offense, and I’ll explain why.
What has plagued Kyle Whittingham’s tenure at Utah is offense. He the exact mold of a defensive-minded coach. Historically, the Utes have used their defense, which is outstanding as usual (24th in S&P+), to be the bell cow. But the offense is predictable. It’s ground and pound, protect the football and be more physical than their opponents.
Well, that doesn’t work against a balanced team like Washington. Luckily for Utah fans, that isn’t the offense the Utes are running now.
After back-to-back losses to the Washington schools, Utah revamped its offense. It’s something I never expected. They had a dual-threat quarterback in Tyler Huntley and had previously refused to use him like most colleges would use someone of Huntley’s ability.
After those losses, when the Utes scored seven and 24 points (all in the first half), they opened up the offense to allow Huntley to run more often. They incorporated quarterback runs and relied more on the offensive line, which continually improved this season, to lead the team. Now, the Utes weren’t playing the caliber of defensive fronts like Washington, but Utah rushed for more 200 yards five times and at least 155 yards in every game the last eight weeks of the seasons while averaging 35 points in those contests.
What’s even more impressive to me is Utah has done all this while losing Huntley and starting running back Zack Moss in a Week 10 loss to Arizona State. That takes some internal fortitude and excellent coaching, which Utah clearly has both of.
So in this matchup, Washington’s defense is going up against a backup quarterback and running back. What bothers a backup quarterback most? Pressure. And Washington doesn’t generate much. Their defensive line is 113th in sack rate on passing downs and Utah’s offensive line sack rate is 66th.
That’s not excellent, but the Utes can handle the pass rush. I think new Utah quarterback Jason Shelley will have the time to throw, and if Utah can continue to keep third down manageable — the Utes are sixth in the country at average distance for a third-down attempt — they’ll move the ball enough.
In a contest that’s supposed to be close, and with no coaching advantage, you have to turn to special teams as a tiebreaker, where Utah has a clear advantage.
Utah is seventh in special teams S&P+ and Washington is 115th. Utah has kicker Matt Gay, the reigning Lou Groza winner, and punter Mitch Wishnowsky, a finalist for the Ray Guy award for the nation’s top punter. On the flip side, Washington has a freshman kicker and rotates two punters with two different styles. The Huskies are ranked 100, 105, 108 and 61 in all the kicking game efficiency rankings. The Utes are excellent in all phases.
So we have a Washington team that’s going to be consistent and score about 21 points. You can’t count on the Huskies forcing three turnovers again, but their rushing game has improved with Gaskin back in the lineup. They’ll hit a trick play for a big gain, maybe even a touchdown.
Then we have a Utah squad that’s solid on defense and has improved perhaps more than any offense in the country from the start of the season to now. The Utes will dominate field position because of special teams. I also think there’s a tad bit of a letdown factor with Washington having just won an emotional game against Washington State and now heads into a game that’s going to be full of Utah fans.
Every single flight from Salt Lake City to San Francisco/Oakland was sold out on Thursday and Friday. The Utes are pumped for their first Pac-12 Championship Game.
Lastly, I think Utah got a scare last weekend being down early against BYU. That was a wakeup call to start fast in this contest.
While I think Washington wins, Utah will cover.
The Pick: Utah +5.5