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The Prediction: Pac-12 Championship Game

#11 Washington vs. #17 Utah in an empty stadium in California, who you got?

NCAA Football: Washington at Utah Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Berg

Many things are different from Washington’s 21-7 win over Utah earlier in the season, but some of the most important things have stayed the same. Washington still plays a smothering defense that feasts on one-dimensional offenses. While Utah has shown some ability to throw the ball down-field, their success has largely come against the conference’s poorer defensive units. Their ballyhooed streak of 40-point games came against defenses ranked 59, 86, 39, and 103 by S&P+ (and USC at 39th had some pretty ugly defensive games, too). Jason Shelley, in for Tyler Huntley, remains an inaccurate passer who will allow the Dawgs to use more safety help against the run game. Armand Shyne has subbed reasonably well for Zack Moss, but has been less efficient by virtually every metric. The Ute offense scored exactly once against the Huskies in September with better players. They’re likely to struggle to score again on Friday.

One area where things have changed is the health of the Husky offense. The returns of Hunter Bryant and Trey Adams have improved the explosiveness of the passing attack. Bryant has been the big-play threat that the Huskies lacked for most of the season. Jake Browning had one of his worst games against a very good Utah defensive front. The offensive line has generally played better in recent weeks. Adams protecting Browning’s blindside ought to make it easier for Browning to avoid a boneheaded mistake like his backpedaling interception from the last match-up. Myles Gaskin carried the Huskies on his back in the first match-up, and the record-setting senior may be asked to do the same this time around.

Make no mistake: Utah’s defense is very good and this will be a tough, close game. Two of Washington’s losses (Auburn and Cal) came against teams without dominant offenses, so simply locking down the Utes will not be enough to win the conference. Moreover, Utah has one of the better special teams units in the country, which should give them an advantage over the perpetual abomination of blocked kicks, muffs, and missed tackles that the Huskies offer. In my mind, the tie-breaker is the superior play-making ability of the likes of Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin, and Hunter Bryant. The Huskies will simply have more high-end offensive talent on the field on Friday and I expect that to be enough to grind out a win.

Washington- 24, Utah- 14

Jeff Gorman

Do you enjoy ugly, sloppy football? Then this is the game for you!

It’s been a long road since these teams first met. Utah’s offense, even with backups at RB and QB, is playing better then when they first met UW in week 3. They struggled against Colorado and BYU, but they have simplified their schemes and are scoring at least 30 points per game - something Washington can’t come close to claiming. What’s been the key is massively simplifying the playbook with some QB-friendly formations, all while keeping their identity as a downhill between the tackles running team. RB Armand Shyne and QB Jason Shelley have stepped more than anyone could have expected.

Defensively Utah is rock solid at all levels and still has longtime Husky assassin S/LB Chase Hansen. He currently leads the Pac-12 in TFLs and will be a problem to deal with. Utah is one of the best run stopping teams in the country and has a strong secondary backing them up. It will be tough sledding for the Huskies, but between Myles Gaskin’s running and Hunter Bryant opening things up in the middle, they should have just enough juice.

Then there is special teams, where the Utes always excel. Washington should benefit from the services of P Joel Whitford this time around which should help limit Britain Covey in the return game. But, the Huskies have such wild swings of special teams play within games you can basically bank on them giving Utah at least 1-2 extremely short fields. Washington might need to call on Peyton Henry a few times in the red zone if the Utes make stops - they are one of the top red zone defenses in the country. He’ll get a bad rep this season because of the miss in the Oregon game, but he’s still 10/12 in conference play and can be relied upon to make kicks in the low-mid 30 yard range.

Unfortunately, the Utes are getting hurt at just the wrong time while Washington is finally getting healthy in key positions. The offense feels like it’s starting to find a groove with Hunter Bryant and Myles Gaskin leading the way. On the other hand, Kyle Whittingham is 10-1 in bowl games (I realize this isn’t a bowl game, but I think the comparison is reasonable), so I suspect that Utah will be mentally and physically ready for this game. Couple that with special teams misfires and this will be an extremely close game. Not to mention it’s always a challenge to beat the same team twice in a season.

Ultimately, I can’t see Utah having the success on offense needed to win this game, especially against a Washington defense that is starting to (just barely) rev up their pass rush. They will give WR Britain Covey touches in both the run and pass game early to soften up the defense for their young QB. I’m sure Utah will generate yards on the ground but the Huskies are stout themselves up the middle. Jason Shelley, son of a former Husky WR by the same name, won’t be able to complete enough passes against this secondary and Shyne isn’t as dynamic as Zach Moss. Myles Gaskin does his thing one last time against a Pac-12 team, and the Aaron Fuller/Hunter Bryant combo make big catches. Peyton Henry hits a few field goals.

Washington- 23, Utah- 16

Gabey Lucas

I’m simultaneously terrified because it’s Utah but reassured because of Washington’s performance in the Apple Cup. It feels to me like, based on the trajectory of both teams, this game will have more offensive output than the September matchup but will still be a trench-based, defensive-ish battle. Okay, now I’m just saying the obvious. Apologies.

But really, even if Utah’s rushing attack has been somewhat mellowed out by the loss of Zack Moss, Jason Shelley filling in at quarterback for Tyler Huntley seems to have maybe made their passing offense more effective -- and Armand Shyne and Co. have filled in better than one would expect after the loss of such a workhorse runningback. Considering that -- and considering how close the Utes were to making it a closer game during the previous matchup before poor offensive execution got in the way -- there’s little reason to believe the offense won’t perform better than what Utah’s historically known for under Whittingham. Although if there’s silver lining, it’s that, factoring in Washington’s defensive strengths and philosophy, it’s preferable having an opposing offense with better passing and average running ability versus okay passing and strong running. But still, if there’s something the Utes are defined by, it’s far from the passing game.

Which brings us to Washington’s offense versus Utah’s defense. And boy, if the Apple Cup foreshadowed anything, it’s what good timing Hunter Bryant’s return has been. I’m far from willing to say he’ll have a huge game, or jump on any overreacting optimism about the passing game, but his steps of improvement from week to week the last three outings definitely implies he should provide some breathing room for the Dawgs’ offense. While UW should still heavily rely on the ground, Utah’s front seven is gnarly so having those possibilities for more explosive plays over the top is crucial. Still though, I have a difficult time imagining Washington getting more than 28 points against this defense which is in the top 10 or five in the country in many significant statistics, and which is, in almost every imaginable measurement, the second best D in the Pac-12 after your Huskies.

Oh, and Hamdan, you listening? No more three-screen-passes-in-a-row, please. Thanks.

Washington- 28, Utah- 20

Max Vrooman

Last week all I could think about was how much it would suck if this season really ended with the Huskies going 8-4. Really, the same logic should apply this week. Because it would really suck if we ended the season going 9-4 and to the holiday bowl even if we have the ability to put up a cheesy “Pac-12 North Champions 2018” banner. But my brain isn’t even processing that possibility. Not once have I been able to seriously consider the fact that the Huskies could lose this game and not go to the Rose Bowl.

I understand that Utah is still good despite the loss of Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss. Jason Shelley has been serviceable replacing Huntley and while his completion percentage is lower his YPA have been nearly the same. He has the same ability to punish the Huskies for playing man defense on 3rd and long by getting outside the pocket and scrambling for 12 yards down the sideline. The Utah defense is the greatest the Pac-12 has to offer outside of Seattle and their front 7 again has the ability to wreck the Husky front if they don’t come to play.

But the current edition of Washington just feels different. The additions of Hunter Bryant, Brandon Wellington, and D.J Beavers who all didn’t play in the first version of this game plus essentially Salvon Ahmed who was banged up and essentially served as a decoy lead me to believe that UW is just much better than they were in week 3. And while I understand that Utah is also better as well I have a hard time believing that they’ll be able to close any of the 14 point gap from the first game.

Washington- 27, Utah- 13

Ryan Priest

(Duplicated from this week’s Picking the Pac column)

There’s a reason this game jumped two points almost immediately in UW’s favor after the Huskies opened as a field-goal favorite. Washington has out-recruited Utah per the 247 Sports rankings in each of the past five classes, especially in the two most recent classes of 2017 and 2018 (UW and Utah’s average class rankings for that stretch are 19 and 33, respectively), and played one of their best games of the season last week in knocking off a top-10 Wazzu squad in Pullman by a margin of two scores. And that’s to say nothing of Washington’s 21-7 mid-September victory over the Utes in Salt Lake City.

In addition, the Utes are down their starting quarterback and running back, and just last week needed a huge rally in the second half to overcome a 20-0 halftime deficit in order to beat a BYU team that Washington dispatched with ease.

So why, then, are the Utes afforded a 42.8 percent chance to earn the win (according to ESPN’s Football Power Index matchup predictor), and with it their first Pac-12 championship since joining the conference in 2011? In short, Utah’s defense is playing at a level just short of elite, averaging 20.9 points per game against Power Five opponents and having held all but one Pac-12 team (Arizona State) to under 30 points. In addition, quarterback Jason Shelley has led the Utes to wins in each of his starts since Tyler Huntley’s injury sidelined him for the year, and has thrown three touchdowns and zero interceptions while averaging 7.6 yards per attempt during that stretch. Likewise, Armand Shyne has stepped up admirably in place of the injured Zach Moss, having rushed for 276 yards and three scores in Utah’s last three games.

Considering how well Washington’s own defense has played this year, it seems to me that the Huskies’ best chance to win this one comes by stacking the box and forcing Shelley to beat the vaunted UW secondary. That matchup would bode particularly poorly for Utah’s leading receiver Britain Covey, who absorbed some of the hardest hits we’ve seen this season from Byron Murphy and JoJo McIntosh. If the Dawgs are able to replicate that defensive performance from September and pair it with an offense operating at full strength with Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin, Trey Adams and Hunter Bryant running at full steam, you have to like Washington’s odds of winning a second conference title in three years and punching their ticket to Pasadena for a date against Ohio State or Michigan. Washington- 34, Utah- 17

Chris Landon

You may have heard that it is incredibly difficult for one team to beat another team twice in the same season. This sentiment is not supported by the facts. Since the advent of conference championships, there have been 33 rematches of conference foes in such games. Twenty times, the team that won the regular season game won the rematch.

It is true that these rematches have often resulted in closer games. Eleven of those twenty sweeps saw a rematch that produced a more narrow margin of victory first game.

This game feels like it might follow the pattern of history. While UW doesn’t have to contend with the raucous environment of Salt Lake, this Utah team is one that seems to be improving. We can argue all day long about the backup QB and RB, but the truth is that this team is built from the line of scrimmage out. Use your big uglies to stop the run and then establish the run with your bigger ugliers. Today’s Utah team is probably better at both items than was the team Washington saw in September.

Unfortunately for Kyle Whittingham, this is a better UW team than what he faced in September. Hunter Bryant has transformed an already efficient passing game into one that now leads the conference in yards per attempt. The rushing game has really improved with the development / return of guys like Jaxon Kirkland, Jared Hilbers and Trey Adams. Myles Gaskin, Salvon Ahmed and Sean McGrew easily constitute the best rushing trio in the conference.

At the same time, the defense has taken what was already the best points prevention unit in the nation and found both a pass rush (Hello Joe Tryon) and the ability to generate a few turnovers (UW is now +1 on the season, just one behind Utah).

The only real gap is special teams, but I’m not sure that is enough of an advantage for Utah to overcome all of UW’s advantages. I like UW here.

Washington- 24, Utah- 16

Final Tally

Against the Spread (UW -5.5): Washington- 6, Utah- 0

Straight Up: Washington- 6, Utah- 0

Average Score: Washington- 26.7, Utah- 16