Utah vs. Washington

The Sports Xchange

November 28, 2018 at 2:03 pm.

KICKOFF: Friday, 8 p.m. ET
SITE: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
SERIES: Washington leads 11-1 and won 21-7 in September.
RANKINGS: Washington No. 11; Utah No. 17


–QB Jason Shelley, a freshman making his third college start in place of the injured Tyler Huntley, threw for 141 yards (completing 19 for 28 passes with one touchdown and no interceptions) against BYU last week. He led Utah in rushing with a career-high 61 yards on 11 carries, including a 33-yard rushing touchdown to seal the win in the fourth quarter.

–CB Julian Blackmon scored a touchdown on a 27-yard interception return in the third quarter against BYU, his first interception of the season. It was Utah’s third pick-six this season. Blackmon also had two pass breakups last week, to give him 10 passes defended this season (9 PBUs, 1 INT).

–LB Chase Hansen reached double-digit tackles for the fifth time this season with a career-high tying 13 against BYU. He had three tackles for loss, bringing his season total to 22, which ranks second all-time in a season at Utah. Hansen also had a pass breakup.


–WR Aaron Fuller, Washington’s leading pass-catcher throughout the season, went without a catch at Washington State but did factor into the scoring with a 22-yard touchdown pass to TE Hunter Bryant. The Huskies found a formula that worked against Utah earlier in the season, as Fuller totaled 108 yards in the September matchup.

–WR Andre Baccellia is coming off his most productive outing of 2018, catching five passes for 89 yards. QB Jake Browning told the Pac-12 Networks after the game that Baccellia was a difference-maker with his speed off screen passes against blitzes. Baccellia made a big play against Utah in September, as well, gaining 37 yards on a rush.

–S Taylor Rapp may be the most versatile playmaker on Washington’s talented defense, able to drop back effectively in pass coverage, support against the run and get into the backfield on blitzes. Against Utah, Rapp could be the Huskies’ most effective option in containing explosive WR Britain Covey.


Pac-12 football holds a long-established reputation for producing high-scoring offenses and innovative schemes. The conference’s 2018 championship game on Friday, pitting No. 11-ranked Washington against No. 17 Utah, defies convention.

The Huskies (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12) and Utes (9-3, 6-3) come into the matchup at Levi’s Stadium boasting two of the stingiest defenses in the nation — and, for the first time in the Pac-12 Championship’s eight-year history, the top two scoring defenses in the conference.

“That’s how I think of championship football,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen. “Way back when I was an offensive coordinator (at Boise State), and we were winning a lot of games … I think it always comes down to defense.”

Petersen’s time as a head coach at Boise State garnered national championship with the implementation of trick plays and highlight-reel moments. But in both his tenure as Broncos offensive coordinator and later head coach, Boise State routinely featured some of the best statistical defenses in the country.

He brought the same approach taking over at Washington in 2014, with some of the same staff. Behind co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, who made the move with Petersen, the Huskies allowed just 17.7 points en route to a Pac-12 championship in 2016.

The 2018 defense has been even better to date, surrendering 16.5 points per game under the combined efforts of Kwiatkowski and Jimmy Lake. The Huskies defend the pass aggressively, thanks in part to a deep secondary with standouts like Taylor Rapp, JoJo McIntosh, Byron Murphy and Myles Bryant.

As good as Washington is against the pass (No. 25 nationally in yards allowed per game), it’s been better defending the run. The Huskies rank No. 20 in rushing yards allowed at 122.9, keyed by the nation’s leading tackler, linebacker Benn Burr-Kirven.

With a second Pac-12 championship in three years just a win away, Washington’s an embodiment of a simple Petersen philosophy.

“Really, really good football teams come down to great defense,” he said.

That may be, but the Pac-12’s offensive reputation exists for a reason.

Even Petersen’s 2016 Washington team ranked eighth nationally, scoring a blistering 41.8 points per game with key contributors still on the roster like quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin.

Meanwhile, a Utah program built on outstanding defense contended for Pac-12 championship opportunities three times in recent years, but ultimately fell short.

Utes coach Kyle Whittingham describes his coaching emphasis as “trying to turn teams one-dimensional with defense,” but credits Utah becoming a better offensive team for its first Pac-12 South title.

“Things are a little bit cyclical,” Whittingham said of two defensive-oriented teams taking the lead in a conference known for offense. “But the biggest thing, in my estimation, is the overall talent and ability of your team … not just one particular unit.”

Utah’s 30.8-point per game average this season is the program’s second-highest since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. The 2018 Utes offense is the most effective of the Pac-12 era, averaging 0.417 points per play, compared to 0.393 for the 2014 team that produced a slightly higher point-per-game output (31.3).

The Utes have come alive in the past two months, well removed from the seven points scored in a 21-7 loss to Washington on Sept. 15. Their 35-27 win over rival BYU to cap the regular season marked the seventh time in the Utes’ past eight games in which they scored at least 30.

Utah has maintained this pace while starting a new backfield for the final three weeks, with redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Shelley filling in for Tyler Huntley, and running back Armand Shyne replacing Zack Moss.

Huntley broke his collarbone in a Nov. 3 loss at Arizona State, and Moss sustained a knee injury the next week in practice.

Both Shelley and Shyne have delivered since stepping into the starting lineup. Shyne rushed for 174 yards in a crucial, 32-25 win over Oregon on Nov. 10, and Shelley was instrumental in the fourth-quarter comeback against BYU.

His hurdle of a BYU defender to convert a key first down provided a spark in the decisive, 28-0 run.

Utah now takes its revamped offense and typically stingy defense into a long-awaited title showdown.

While Utah’s offense seeks scoring opportunities that don’t come easily against Washington’s defense, the Utes No. 5 nationally ranked rushing defense must solve Huskies running back Gaskin.

Gaskin rushed for 143 yards in Washington’s September win at Utah, and completed the regular season with a 2018-best 170 yards and three touchdowns at Washington State.