There is plenty on the line in Pullman this weekend when the Washington State Cougars host the Utah Utes in Martin Stadium. Both WSU and Utah have the opportunity to make a bowl game in 2013, though the Cougs only need to win one of their next two while the Utes have to win both of their final two games. If WSU doesn’t want to rely on winning in Seattle against the Washington Huskies in the Apple Cup next Friday, the Cougars must contain the pass rush of Utah on Saturday.
It’s no secret that WSU is going to throw the ball a ton in this game. The Cougs rank dead last in the nation in rushing, averaging just 57.0 yards per game on the ground, a full eight yards less than the next worst team. Their formula for winning is to air it out. They have thrown the ball 577 times this season (second most in the Pac-12) and will continue to go the air early and often against Utah on Saturday as they rely on Connor Halliday to get them that elusive sixth win on the season.
That plays into one of the strengths of this Utah team. The Utes lead the nation in total sacks (36) and sacks per game (3.60) this season as they have been relentless in getting after opposing quarterbacks. They are going to be able to pin their ears back and come with every pressure in their playbook as Halliday is a fairly stationary target in the pocket and the Cougars have no running game to keep the pass-rush honest. With a backup quarterback leading the offense, Kyle Whittingham will lean on his defense to create opportunities for the Utes by bringing pressure and forcing bad decisions out of Halliday.
That puts the onus on the offensive line to step up and protect Halliday. While that was a major challenge for them in 2012 as they allowed more sacks than anyone in the country, the group has come together and really improved the pass protection this season. After giving up a whopping 4.75 sacks per game last year, the Cougars offensive line has only yielded 22 total sacks in 2013, down to just 2.20 sacks per game. They’ll have their hands full with this Utah front seven, of course, but they’ve shown that they are much better equipped to handle that pressure this year.
Giving Halliday time in the pocket to go through his progressions will be the key for Washington State to put Utah away in this game. If Halliday gets pressured out of the pocket or is worried about getting sacked, he has shown a tendency to make poor throws that end up in the hands of the defense. If he can avoid too many of those throws and run this offense effectively and efficiently behind a strong effort from his o-line, WSU will be bowling in 2013.