Washington at Utah

The Sports Xchange

September 12, 2018 at 5:13 pm.

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Saturday, 10 p.m. ET
SITE: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah
TV: ESPN
SERIES: Washington leads Utah 10-1
RANKINGS: Washington No. 10

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Huskies

–QB Jake Browning enters Saturday’s matchup with Utah completing fewer than 60 percent of his pass attempts, and with as many interceptions as touchdowns (3). The veteran played one of his better games of the 2017 season against Utah, completing 26-of-35 pass attempts for 354 yards with two touchdowns and, perhaps most importantly, no interceptions.

–WR Aaron Fuller has firmly established himself as Washington’s No. 1 pass-catching target through two games. Fuller made seven catches Week 1 against Auburn, and six in Week 2 vs. North Dakota.

–LB Ben Burr-Kirven is active against the run, evident in his team-leading 22 tackles through the first two games. The inside linebacker faces a new challenge Week 3, having to account for the dual-threat playmaking abilities of Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley. Huntley was bottled up last week by an aggressive Northern Illinois pass-rush, but Huntley has a proven ability to run. Last season, he registered 537 yards on the ground.

Utes

–LB Chase Hansen scored a touchdown on a 40-yard interception return against Northern Illinois last week. He has two career interceptions returned for a touchdown (also against Arizona State in 2016). Hansen had 12 tackles and led Utah with 2.5 tackles for loss (2.0 sacks) against the Huskies. He has three career games with 10-plus tackles.

–ATH Britain Covey had his first 100-yard receiving game of the season and tied his career high with 129 yards on eight catches against Northern Illinois. He has two career 100-yard receiving games (129 vs. USC in 2015 is the other). Covey led Utah with 137 all-purpose yards, which also included three rushing yards and five punt return yards. He has five career games with 100-plus all-purpose yards.

–QB Tyler Huntley threw for 286 yards, completing 20 of 31 pass attempts against Northern Illinois for his ninth career 200-yard passing game.

KEYS
TO THE GAME

Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City has cultivated a modest reputation in recent years as a venue where opponents’ dreams are shattered: Stanford’s national title hopes in 2013, USC’s pursuit of a conference championship in 2014, blue-blood Michigan in its debut with Jim Harbaugh in 2015.

No. 10-ranked Washington (1-1) avoided a similar fate on its road to the College Football Playoff in 2016, and the Huskies again seek to leave its matchup against Utah on Saturday unscathed.

Their last visit to Utah ended in a 31-24 Washington victory, sealed when the Huskies’ defense made a fourth-down stop at their own 26-yard line. The trip marked Washington’s first to Rice-Eccels under coach Chris Petersen, who left with an appreciation for the rowdy atmosphere.

“It’s as good as anywhere we’ve been. It’s how college football should be,” Petersen said. “It’ll be a packed house. Those night games – any time you’re on the road in a night game and a packed stadium, it’s a really energized environment.”

The arrival of a top 10 opponent should only serve to further energize the home crowd, as Utah (2-0) — the first team out of the Associated Press Top 25 in Others Receiving Votes this week — aim to put a signature win on its resume.

The Utes played Washington close each of the past two seasons, but followed up the seven-point loss in 2016 with an even more competitive defeat last November in Seattle.

Utah led the 2017 meeting by a touchdown with less than two minutes remaining. A Myles Gaskin touchdown run, a quick Utes punt and pair of long Jake Browning pass completions after an aggressive Utah timeout set up Washington’s game-winning, last-second field goal in the Huskies’ 33-30 victory.

“We’ve got to find a way to get over that hump,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, adding that doing so is a challenge. “They’re a heck of a football team. You look at them on tape, and they don’t have any weaknesses.”

Whittingham is the second opposing coach in as many weeks to invoke the phrase “don’t have any weaknesses,” echoing the sentiment that made Washington a common preseason pick to return to the College Football Playoff.

However, through two games – including a tight, Week 1 loss to Auburn – Washington is aiming to strengthen its offense.

Red-zone misfires against Auburn cost the Huskies in a game where the defense shined. They returned home last week to put up 45 points against North Dakota, but Browning threw a pair of interceptions in the blowout win.

“I don’t feel like we dominated at any point,” Browning said in the postgame press conference. “We have a standard of play and we didn’t play to it. I don’t feel like I played to my standard.”

With an end-of-game interception against Auburn, and the two against North Dakota, Browning enters Saturday’s Pac-12 Conference opener with as many picks thrown this season as touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Utah is coming off a win in which its typically stout defense sealed the victory on an interception.

Linebacker Chase Hansen’s 40-yard pick-six elevated Utah past Northern Illinois 17-6, despite the Utes’ own struggles to maintain rhythm offensively. Running back Zack Moss scored Utah’s only offensive touchdown, and quarterback Tyler Huntley threw for 286 yards without an interception. But five possessions in Northern Illinois territory producing zero points looms as a concern.

“We’ve had a hard time getting on track,” Whittingham said. “We’re not very efficient; didn’t finish drives … The name of the game is scoring points. If you don’t put the ball in the end zone, you’re going to struggle.”

Finishing offensive possessions is a common thread. Washington’s 41.7 touchdown percentage on red-zone opportunities ranks the Huskies No. 115 in the nation.

On Saturday, a sea of black in the Rice-Eccles stands will do its part to vex Washington when it’s in the red zone. A black-out of the stadium is planned to set the theme for the nighttime kick and upset bid.

The memories of a hard-fought win at Utah two years ago may have faded for the Huskies, but opening 2018 in hostile conditions against Auburn offers some familiarity for what awaits.

“It’s probably better we were in that loud environment, (against) a real physical opponent,” Petersen said.

 

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