It is finally game day for the Pac-12 Championship between the No. 17 Utah Utes (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12) and the No. 11 Washington Huskies (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12). Let’s take a look at the three keys for this game. Both teams strike me as very similar. Win the line of scrimmage, play great defense and run the football is the name of the game for both teams.
The Huskies have started fast in two of their last three games, rolling up 56 points in the first half against the Stanford Cardinal and Oregon State Beavers. However, the have not finished strong, managing just six points in the second half against Stanford and just seven against Oregon State. Utah has been the polar opposite in their last two games, scoring just seven points in the first half against the Colorado Buffaloes and BYU Cougars. But, Utah is great at making halftime adjustments and scored 23 and 35 points against those respective opponents in the second half. Both teams feature great defenses, so this is not a game to try to mount a large comeback in the second half. Utah needs to start faster than they have in their last two games, or they could face a double-digit halftime deficit that would likely be insurmountable given Utah’s style of play and the quality of UW’s defense. I do think Utah will be far more motivated in this game than they were in the first half against BYU.
Outside of the game against each other in September, Utah is +4 in turnover margin and Washington is -1. However, in that game, Utah was -2, giving away the ball three times in UW territory and only forcing a single turnover. Utah’s offense is unlikely to be able to consistently drive long fields on UW’s stellar defense. If the defense can produce a few short fields (or even a defensive touchdown), it will markedly help Utah our points on the board. The Utah offense also needs to be better about taking care of the football this time around. This will be by far the best defense Jason Shelley will face since taking over for Tyler Huntley, can he continue his streak of no turnovers? It will be his toughest test yet.
Red zone execution
Utah is the best in the Pac-12 in red zone scoring percentage at just over 90%. However, against Washington, Utah managed to only score once in three trips to the red zone, by far their worst performance of the season, and the only time this year Utah failed to score on more than one trip into the red zone in a game (Utah has scored on 41-of-45 trips, failing to score once against the UCLA Bruins and Arizona State Sun Devils). Utah is also second in the nation in red zone defense. They allow points on less than 65% of trips (Utah boasts a better red zone defense than even the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide). UW allows scores on 80% of trips (tied for 35th nationally). Washington is 11th in the Pac-12 in red zone scoring at just over 77%. They scored on two of three trips against Utah. Utah is Elite in the red zone on both sides of the ball this year. In the first game, Utah’s red zone defense was decent (they did give up two touchdowns, i.e. 66% of trips compared to their season average of less than 50%) and their offense was awful. If Utah plays better in the red zone, it could seriously change the trajectory of the game compared to last year. Since they first met, Utah has seen huge development from their wide receivers with Samson Nacua and Solomon Enis both proving to be weapons in the red zone with their height and ball skills. The emergence of Cole Fotheringham and Brant Kuithe has also helped red zone production. Washington’s elite defense deserves some credit for Utah’s abysmal red zone offensive numbers in the first meeting, but I think Utah has developed a lot since then and has much better schemes in place to score points in the red zone.
This is not really a key, but more something to watch out for. Both coaches have a history of trick plays. I think we are more likely to see them from Kyle Whittingham/Troy Taylor than Chris Petersen/Bush Hamden. I almost expect at least one play where Britain Covey has the opportunity to throw, and I would not be shocked if Shelley is out in the pattern as a receiver. Fake punts or field goals and onside kicks are also possible from Whittingham. Utah ran a fake punt and an onside kick (both successfully) at Washington last year. As I mentioned earlier, I do not think the Utah offense can consistently drive the field on Washington’s defense, so some tricks might help Utah to steal a possession or keep a drive moving that otherwise would end. As Dan Fouts said in The Waterboy, “Last game of the year Brent, can’t hold anything back.” (I know it is not the last game of the year, but it is the last game before bowl season so close enough and it’s such a funny line in the movie I am going to roll with it.)
Do you agree that these are the keys to the game? If not, what are your keys?