I think it’s tricky to predict the specifics of this game just because Utah’s only played one game. Sure, they didn’t look very good last week against USC, but as we’ve learned from a bunch of teams, the kinks of having a first game against a team that’s already played one or two are significant. For that reason I think it’s reasonable to expect the Utes to be cleaner than they were last Saturday.
That being said, this is a team that lost a crapload from last year’s South winners. Just off the top of my head, Anae, Fotu, Blackmon, (were Penisini and Guidry the year before?), Moss, not to mention Huntley, whose growth at QB over the course of his time there is underrated by most non-Ute fans I feel. It would be shocking to see Utah not take a step back this season and based on their performance against USC (even taking into account first game bumps), it seems that’s what’s happening. As it is, Utah’s starting to be able to land higher end players on the recruiting trail (Clark Phillips, Ethan Calvert, for example), but the bulk of their roster as it currently stands means they can’t just reload seamlessly at every position.
Their development of players especially on defense is always huge, but there’s just so many guys to break in in spots that were vacated by huge contributors last year. But I think the biggest difference is the offensive backfield. It’s not like their quarterback room is now totally bare — Cameron Rising, who won the job before being injured, was a four star recruit who originally went to Texas, and Jake Bentley was a three year starter at South Carolina — but with Bentley now the starter, it’s important to note how inconsistent he was at SCAR. Frankly, who knows how good Bentley could’ve been had Will Muschamp not screwed up his development, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is he can make some beautiful throws and then turn around and do something absolutely boneheaded. Making his job all the more difficult is not having Zack Moss to rely on, either. So for the Utes to have a really great game offensively, a lot would have to break their way.
But even considering this theoretical step back (what’s a Utah game prediction without a gazillion “on the other hands”?), Utah still is a tough team even in their relative down years. I’ll never fully count them out and, even when I’m more confident than not, they’ll always scare me at minimum a little bit and at maximum an ungodly amount.
The key as far as I’m concerned is if ZTF (and all of the pass rush) can continue his hot streak and rattle Bentley. Especially if he establishes that pressure early, I can easily see Bentley start seeing ghosts and make some poor decisions as the game goes on. On offense, a similarly balanced-ish gameplan like last week should probably do it. I’ll assume this is gonna be a battle until proven otherwise, but Utah’s in a really tough position just with their personnel turnover and I think in the end that’ll be too much to overcome.
Washington- 34, Utah- 21
We’re all learning on the fly about how to evaluate performance under pandemic conditions. One conclusion that seems reasonably clear is that teams underperform in their first game against opponents who have already played. UW’s uninspiring win over Oregon State is one example, and Utah’s very poor showing against USC might be another. For that reason, it’s important not to sell Utah short coming into Husky Stadium under very weird conditions.
When Utah has the ball, there are several key advantages for the Huskies. The Utes had a QB competition as veiled in secrecy as the one Jimmy Lake conducted. Like the UW competition, and underdog emerged victorious, but Texas transfer Cam Rising lasted less than a quarter before a shoulder injury ended his season South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley (at 23, old enough to be Kevin Thomson’s kid brother) was the favorite for the job going into camp, ended up laying most of the game, and threw two interceptions. Between Rising, Bentley, and leading rusher Ty Jordan, Utah turned the ball over five times. Utah will want to rely on veteran receivers Bryan Thompson, Samson Nacua, and Brant Kuithe, but the Husky secondary should be every bit as punishing as USC’s if Bentley continues to err. Like UW, the Utes spread carries between multiple running backs. No one stood out and they will have to do better than 4.0 yards per carry against UW’s weaker run defense to stay in the game.
On the other side of the ball, I’m skeptical of concluding much from Utah’s game with USC. As with Arizona a week ago, the demands of playing the Trojan version of the Air Raid differ significantly from the approach to UW’s Run the Damn Ball offense. With nine new starters on that side of the ball, last year is similarly unhelpful in reading the tea leaves. For what it’s worth, Utah did a pretty good job against USC’s interior runs and put pressure on Kedon Slovis, but they gave up an uncharacteristic number of big plays in both phases. Bru McCoy’s big game leads me to believe that Cade Otton might be primed for another good performance as a safe, big target for Dylan Morris. Likewise, Sean McGrew offers the most explosive ability in the run game, though Richard Newton’s newfound ability to outrun defenders would be very useful here. Morris showed a willingness to try deep shots with mixed results. If he can connect with Ty Jones, Puka Nacua, or Jalen McMillan on a couple of those balls, it could make a huge difference in the trajectory of the game.
Washington- 33, Utah- 24
This will be the 3rd straight game for the Huskies where there is only one game of film on their opponent as they’ve had 0, then 1, then 2 games cancelled to start the year. There was no doubt that Utah would take a step back after losing so much talent from last season’s Pac-12 South champions but they really looked out of sorts against a USC team that hasn’t exactly been dominant to this point.
The big thing that has changed is the Utah quarterback situation. Cameron Rising won the job coming out of camp but almost immediately sustained a season ending injury so South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley will take the reigns. Bentley was pretty terrible against USC but he also was coming in mid-game without reps in practice that week. He will be going against a better Washington defense this week but at least got 1st team reps in practice even if they didn’t know for sure who the opponent would be until midweek. As a junior at South Carolina he threw for more than 3,000 yards with a 27/14 TD/INT ratio so there’s definitely upside.
The defense is a completely different animal this season. Utah’s secondary had 0 combined starts before the USC game after losing several all-conference players. The front 7 also lost a ton of experience but still seems like a major strength. Washington has run the ball a ton in its first 2 games but this Utah run D will be the biggest challenge they’ve faced yet. If the Huskies are able to still run for 5+ yards per carry then it’s a sign no one in the Pac-12 will be able to stop their rushing attack. But more likely is that Dylan Morris will need to win this game with his arm attacking the Utah young’uns in the secondary with UW’s athletic receiving corps.
Kyle Whittingham is one of the best coaches in the Pac-12 and might even be #1 after Chris Petersen’s departure. But this is a tough ask for him to take such a young squad up to Seattle without a full week of game prep and challenge a motivated Washington team.
Washington- 27, Utah- 16
Straight Up: Washington- 3, Utah- 0
Against the Spread (UW -7): Washington- 3, Utah- 0 (uh oh)
Average Score: Washington- 31.3, Utah- 20.3