Before we dive into the prediction, here's a recap of our information on Utah this week:
With this game, the Huskies will bid adieu to CenturyLink Field, their home away from home for the 2012 season as Husky Stadium is rebuilt. While it has lacked the collegiate feel of years past, with no tailgating to speak of and located miles away from campus and the gorgeous views of Lake Washington and sailgating, nobody can deny that it's been as good as any temporary home can be as the Huskies currently sit at 4-1 on the season in the friendly confines of the "Clink", including knocking off two teams ranked at the time in the top-10. Can they continue the good vibes going at their temporary home and clinch bowl eligibility?
Utah doesn't come into town with as much hoopla as Stanford, USC or Oregon State - all ranked teams - and it can be argued that San Diego State might be having a better season so far. But the Utes do bring momentum into this game as for the 2nd year in a row they are attempting to rebound from a tough first half of the season to gain bowl eligibility themselves. They have won their last two games decisively, beating Cal 49-27 and WSU 49-6 as true Fr. QB Travis Wilson has gained confidence and talented RB John White IV has gotten healthy, while return man Reggie Dunn has been on fire with three 100-yard kickoff returns for TD's in those two games.
In some ways they resemble the Huskies, as they have also gone 4-1 at home with their only loss also coming at the hands of USC, but are 0-4 on the road. They will have to break their losing streak on the road if they wish to get to a bowl as two of their final three games are away from Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Despite their road record, there are reasons to be concerned about the Utes. Their defense looks pretty good, especially against the run as they rank 15th in the country allowing just 105.1 ypg and 3.24 ypc. Interestingly though, the advanced metrics aren't as impressed - the Football Outsiders FEI and S&P metrics both rank the Utes behind the Huskies defensively, with even their run defense ranking lower in S&P than the Dawgs. And in pass defense, both the more standard metrics like pass efficiency defense as well as the advanced metrics like S&P consider the Utes just above middle of the road. However Utah appears to be back at full strength on the DL as All-America candidate Star Lotulelei is again flanked by brothers Dave Kruger and Joe Kruger, with Joe fully healthy according to coach Whittingham. They rank 27th in the country is sacks, so Keith Price can expect to be under siege again.
Offensively, things appear to be clicking for them lately as star RB John White IV is back on track with back-to-back 100 yard games and frosh QB Travis Wilson is finding his groove. He figures to have a much tougher test this week though against a much-improved Husky secondary, and he will probably be facing his most hostile road crowd yet of his young career. Figure on the Utes to try to get White going on the ground against a questionable Husky run defense - only the hapless Buffaloes of Colorado have given up more yards per game on the ground in the Pac-12.
For the Huskies, I expect them to take a similar approach offensively to what they did vs. Oregon State and try to get Bishop Sankey going early; the hope would be they can loosen up the Ute defense enough to take advantage of a more questionable pass defense while keeping Price from getting trampled. Utah is more vulnerable through the air, and Sark is susceptible to getting pass-happy at times, but I expect he'll recognize the success he's had as he's recommitted to the run game in the wake of the Arizona disaster and stay balanced in his play-calling.
Obviously on special teams the goal is to avoid kicking to Reggie Dunn. It would also appear they can be had on punt returns as they've allowed 1 TD already this year. Cody Bruns may not be a breakaway threat, but he's had a couple good returns so far this year and could be in line for another good night in that capacity.
Best-case scenario, I see the Huskies playing with the same kind of intensity they brought against Stanford and Oregon State, and Wilcox tweaks the personnel slightly to try to keep White from controlling the game. The secondary has another good game, picking off Wilson a couple times as the crowd and a resurgent pass-rush rattle the youngster. On offense, Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins both find plenty of mismatch opportunities for big plays, and Sankey runs for a hard-earned 95 yards. The Huskies avoid mistakes on special teams, and the team plays their best game of the year as they keep Utah winless on the road and beat them 31-13.
Worst-case scenario, the Ute defense dominates the line of scrimmage, completely shutting down the Husky run-game and sacking and harassing Price all night, forcing multiple turnovers. White finds plenty of running room against the Husky defense, and when Wilcox tries to slow him down by moving Parker into the box, Wilson makes him pay with a long TD to Kenneth Scott. Dunn continues his record-setting season and returns his 4th kickoff for a TD this year, and the Utes stun an angry home crowd as Utah wins easily, 30-10.
So how do I see it playing out? While I think this is a dangerous game for the Huskies, I see the trends holding steady in this game - the Huskies play tough at home, and Utah is winless on the road. I'm also encouraged by what the advanced metrics tell me, giving me some belief that Sankey could have enough success on the ground to take some pressure off of Price and allow him enough time to make a few big plays in the passing game. While I expect White might get his 3rd straight 100-yard game, I think it will be hard-earned, and won't be enough to overcome a shaky game from Wilson, and I see turnovers favoring the Huskies (partly due to home field mojo). I think it will be probably be another gritty, tough win. Let's call it UW 24, Utah 16.