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September 30, 2011

Utah vs Washington

Utah (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12) hosts Washington (3-1, 1-0) in the Utes first Pac-12 home game. Utah and Washington have not played each other since 1979. Washington has never lost to Utah, though the teams have not played in over 30 years, and Washington has never played in Salt Lake City.

Utah enters the game coming off of a bye week, taking the extra time to get away from the game for a few days. In their last game, Utah rode a wave of turnovers, routing rival BYU 54-10. Bye weeks have been good for the Utes in the past. Under head coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah has never lost a game following a bye week.

Washington is coming off a big win of their own. The Huskies scored 10 points in the last 17 minutes of the game to come from behind and defeat Cal 31-23. Washington's much-maligned defense did give up over 400 yards for the third time this season, though they managed to keep Cal out of the endzone. Washington's offense continued to put up yards and points, as the Huskies have scored at least 30 points in every game this season, and gained over 400 yards for the third consecutive game.

Utah proved in their last game that they could overcome an emotional loss and respond, getting over their last second loss to USC in time to thoroughly destroy BYU. Now, the Utes must try to refocus after a big win over their rival to defend their home turf in their new conference.

Utah Run Offense vs Washington Run Defense
John White exploded against BYU for his best rushing performance of the season, rushing for 174 yards and three touchdowns on the Cougars, including two long touchdowns in the second half. Unfortunately for Utah, White has been essentially the entire rushing offense, accounting for 61% of Utah's rushing attempts, 74% of Utah's rushing yards, and all five rushing touchdowns. Tauni Vakapuna has struggled in the role of top backup, gaining just 22 yards on 16 carries. Harvey Langi picked up quality yards with his three carries against BYU, and might be ready to take some of the pressure off White. Despite the early loss of Tony Bergstrom againt the Cougars, Utah's starting offensive line played their best game of the season. John Cullen appears to be getting back to form after missing the opener due to injury, and Miles Mason has become comfortable at left guard after working almost exclusively at tackle and filling in for Cullen since arriving at Utah late in fall camp. Utah's line opened holes in the running game and wore out BYU's front seven. White and the Utah running game faces another good run defense in the Huskies, and they are hoping for similar results.

Washington's run defense looks average at first glance, though a deeper look reveals a solid front that can clog running lanes and make running the ball between the tackles very difficult. Outside of Nebraska - one of the top rushing offenses in the country - Washington has been a tough defense to run on. Washington's run defense is built around massive defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu. The 6-foot-3, 330 pound senior is virtually impossible to single block and is difficult to move even with double-teams. Sophomore Sione Potoa'e will get his second start at tackle next to Ta'amu, and the runt of the defensive tackle group at 276 pound. Washington's next three tackles all push 330 pounds, including 334 pound freshman tackle Danny Shelton who has played well in the first four games of the season. Salt Lake City native Cort Dennison is the heart and soul of the defense, leading the Huskies in tackles from his inside linebacker position and solid against the run and pass. Washington's defensive front is exactly the kind that has given the Utes problems in the past, and the Utes will have their hands full this weekend.
EDGE: Even

Washington Run Offense vs Utah Run Defense
Washington's passing game might get all the headlines, but the running game is equally adept. Chris Polk might be the best pure running back in the Pac-12, with his ability to run inside the tackles, bounce outside, pick up the blitz, and catch the ball out of the backfield. The 222 pound Junior is the complete package and making his way up the Washington career rushing charts. Polk is 186 yards away from second place on the Huskies career rushing yards list behind Napoleon Kaufman. Polk has the combination of size, speed, and instincts that allow him to make the initial defender miss, either by running through or around the tackler and can gain yards with very little room. There is a massive drop in production when Polk is off the field. Jesse Callier is a decent back, but is no where near the runner Polk is. Washington's offensive line is young, small, and inexperienced, but they have done a good job of creating lanes for Polk to run through.

Utah's run defense struggled to contain USC's Marc Tyler and will again have their hands full in Polk. The Utes have been stout up front, though, keeping opposing running games in check, even against the Trojans. Star Lotulelei is outstanding at plugging holes in the running game, and has been a force inside in all three games. Dave Kruger has been all over the defensive line this season, and did played well against BYU in his first start of the season. Utah's linebackers have been very active in the running game. Chaz Walker has led the Utes in tackles all three games and will be a huge factor in slowing down Polk. Matt Martinez has been solid alongside Walker and is very good against the run, though he can get caught up in traffic and struggle to get off blocks at times. Eric Rowe has been excellent in run support from the safety position.

Utah Pass Offense vs Washington Pass Defense
Utah's passing game has been extremely inconsistent this season, looking great at times and awful at times. The results so far this season are understandable considering Jordan Wynn recovering from a severe shoulder injury. Wynn's yardage totals have been respectable the last two games, but he has been inefficient throwing the football. Wynn has completed just 51% of his passes the last two games, including a 16-for-30 performance against BYU. Wynn's inconsistency has meant trouble for the Utah offense, especially at sustaining drives. Utah is converting a meager 29% of the time on third down this season, a reflection of teams stacking the box against the run on early downs and forcing Wynn to complete long passes on second and third down. Utah has just four scoring drives this season of seven or more plays, and three of those came against Montana State. DeVonte Christopher took a beating against BYU, including a helmet-to-helmet shot in the endzone, but showed his toughness by getting back in the huddle and playing well. Christopher is Utah's most consistent target and is doing a great job getting open and catching the football. Christopher leads the Utes with 16 catches for 205 yards and two touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Dres Anderson caught his first career touchdown pass against BYU, hauling in a deep pass from Wynn and racing 59 yards for the score. Anderson's emergence has been a huge positive for the Utah passing attack, and the Utes get another boost against the Huskies with the return of versatile receiver Luke Matthews. Matthews missed the BYU game, and Wynn missed his ability to find the open spots in coverages from the slot. Utah tight ends have seen their production go through the roof in Norm Chow's offense, going from pure blockers who rarely saw a pass to becoming legitimate threats in the passing game. Kendrick Moeai and Dallin Rogers can take advantage of holes in the middle of the field, and have proven to be reliable targets. Rogers leads all tight ends and is second on the team with 10 catches. Jake Murphy caught his first career passes against BYU, including a 29-yard touchdown. Murphy is questionable for the game, but if he is able to play he provides the Utes with another weapon at the tight end position.

Washington has had issues in pass coverage, giving up huge amounts of yards and several scores through the air despite returning most of the secondary. Washington's biggest issue in the passing game has not been the coverage, but the lack of a pass rush. The Huskies can not seem to generate much pressure from their front four, and have been forced to bring extra pass rushers, leaving openings in the secondary that opposing quarterbacks have been able to exploit. Missing free safety Nate Fellner for the past two games hasn't helped the pass defense, but the Huskies struggled even with him in the lineup. Justin Glenn filled in well for Fellner, at least in run support, and will likely see some time against Utah as Fellner is recovering from a hamstring injury. Cornerback Desmond Trufant is a very good cover corner who plays the ball in the air very well and has the hands to pick the ball off. The other corner position has had some issues, as neither Quinton Richardson nor Gregory Ducre has been able to step up and take control of the position. The key to this matchup will be Wynn, and how well he is throwing the football after the bye week.

Washington Pass Offense vs Utah Pass Defense
Keith Price has emerged this season as one of the top quarterbacks in the Pac-12. The sophomore signal-caller is tied for the national lead with 14 touchdown passes and is in the top-10 nationally in passer rating. Price is a terrific athlete, though he prefers to use his athleticism to avoid the pass rush and buy time for his receivers to get open downfield instead of tucking the ball and running. Price has been hobbled by minor injuries to both knees, but he is still dangerous and able to move out of the pocket. Price can be pressured, and will throw the ball into coverage especially when under duress. Jermaine Kearse is Price's top target. Kearse is a very good all-around receiver who knows the game, knows the offense, and can get open against any coverage. Kearse leads the Huskies with four touchdown catches this season. Devin Aguilar is Washington's big play threat, and he has great speed and a knack for setting up the coverage. Aguilar can also create after the catch. Aguilar is second on the team with 13 catches, but leads the team with 253 yards and well over 19 yards per catch. Slot receiver James Johnson leads the team with 14 catches and is a tough matchup inside. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins has provided a huge boost to the passing game. The 6-fot-6, 258 pound true freshman played well in the first three games, but really burst onto the scene last week, catching four passes and two touchdowns against Cal. Seferian-Jenkins combination of size and speed makes him a difficult matchup for opposing defenses, as linebackers typically do not have the speed to stay with him while safeties are outmatched physically. Washington's inexperienced offensive line has struggled keeping Price clean, and have surrendered nine sacks already this season.

Utah has played the pass very well this season. Though the Utes have surrendered yards, opposing offenses have had to work very hard for whatever they get through the air. Opponents are completing just 56% of their passes against the Utah secondary and big plays have been hard to come by. Utah has picked off four passes, and linebacker Brian Blechen leads the team with two of those picks. Cornerbacks Ryan Lacy and Conroy Black have played well for first-year starters. Lacy has been the corner that teams have picked on the most, and as a result Lacy leads the secondary in tackles and passes defended. Utah's safeties have been getting better each week. Rowe, Keith McGill, and Michael Walker have rotated through both safety positions in the first three games, and will likely be joined by former walk-on Quade Chappuis. Chappuis came off the bench against BYU and had a solid outing in the first extended playing time of his career, including snatching an interception off a pass tipped by Blechen. Utah's pass rush has been sporadic at times, but showed promise the last two games. Derrick Shelby has been playing the best football of his career through the first three games, and while he has just one sack, Shelby has supplied constant pressure from the edge with numerous hurries. Shelby has also knocked down three passes to go along with getting pressure from his end position. Outside of Shelby, Utah has been looking for another presence to generate a pass rush. Utah may have found that person in linebacker/end Trevor Reilly. Reilly created havoc whenever he was on the field against BYU, creating two sacks and forcing two fumbles (Reilly was erroneously credited with three forced fumbles in the official stats for that game). Reilly is a naturally gifted pass rush and should see more playing time as the season goes along if he can continue to get after the quarterback. Washington will field the most experienced group of pass catchers the Utes have faced, and that experience could create some big plays against a still-growing secondary if the front four can not contain Price.

Special Teams
Erik Folk is an excellent placekicker and gives Washington the luxury of sure points any time the get inside the opponent's 35 yard line. Folk had a down year last year, and has come back strong in 2011, hitting on six of his seven field goal attempts, hitting his first five. Folk's only miss this season was a 52-yard attempt against Cal. Folk has a strong, accurate leg and has 55-yard plus range. Folk is also perfect in his career on PAT kicks, giving the Huskies a legitimate threat in the kicking game. Punting has been another story for the Huskies. Kiel Rasp stepped in to handle the punter duties after returning starter Will Mahan was injured before the opener, and did a nice job. Rasp averaged over 42 yards per punt through the first four games before injuring himself against Cal. Mahan stepped in and did an OK job finishing the game against the Bears. Consistency has been an issue for Rasp, and with the injuries sustained to both punters this season, there are questions at the position. Rasp and Mahan are listed as co-starters this week.

Utah's kicking game is a huge question mark for this team. Coleman Petersen appeared to have nailed down the placekicking duties in fall camp and provide the Utes with yet another solid kicker. However, Petersen has struggled over the last two games, and perhaps let the blocked field goal against USC get in his head as he was well off the mark with his first field goal attempt against BYU, as well as missing an extra point. Petersen can be very good, but needs to prove the past two weeks were an aberration. Punter is also up in the air, as Sean Sellwood and Nick Marsh split punting duties against BYU. Sellwood is the better punter when he is sound, but has a tendency to take a false step when receiving the snap, taking an extra split-second to kick the ball and increasing the chances of a blocked punt. Marsh is quicker, but does not get the distance or hangtime Sellwood can provide.

Both Utah and Washington field very good coverage units. Utah's kick and punt coverage teams are excellent. Washington is one of the top teams in the nation in punt coverage, though they have had their issues on kick returns. Washington punt returners have not done much, though freshman Kasen Williams is a terrific athlete who should be able to make plays in the return game. Washington's kick returners have proven to be dangerous. Callier and Kevin Smith each have returns of 55 yards or longer, and are just a block or two away from scoring. For Utah, Charles Henderson has provided some excitement on punt returns, though the more sure-handed Griff McNabb fields most of the punts. Reggie Dunn and Ryan Lacy are threats as kick returners, and both have come close to breaking a return for a score.

Utah has the clear advantage in the return game, both in returns and coverage, while Washington has the clear edge in the kicking game.
EDGE: Even

This game is difficult to get a read on. The strengths of one side match up with the strengths of the other, while the weaknesses also match up. The difference will be if Wynn and Utah can consistently create positive plays on first and second down, setting up short third downs. If Utah can do that, and convert them, with their defense and home field they should win the game.

Washington will jump out to an early lead, but sill struggle to move the ball as Utah contains Polk and keeps him under 100 yards rushing, forcing Price into down-and-distances that favor the Utes. Wynn and the offense plug along, eventually getting into a grove before taking over the game in the second half. Washington manages to keep things closer than expected, though Utah eeks out a seventh straight bye-week win for Whittingham.

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