The Washington State Cougars lost quarterback Luke Falk, arguably the most prolific passer in school history to the NFL after last season but have continued putting up video game-like numbers offensively despite his absence. A clash with Utah’s top-ranked defense will likely leave both teams tested as they each battle for their first conference win of 2018.
After the tragic off-season loss of presumed starter, Tyler Hilinksi, head coach Mike Leach found Falk’s replacement in graduate transfer, Gardner Minshew. The senior quarterback has stepped in to the position without missing a beat, averaging 396.3 yards per game and passing for an enviable 11 touchdowns. Minshew has also carried the ball 17 times, good for 38 yards and a touchdown, a rare stat for quarterbacks in Mike Leach’s offense. While he’s certainly not considered a dual-threat and will be most dangerous in the pocket, it does add an interest element to the traditional air-raid offense that Leach is famous for and something the Utes defense will have to account for,
Assisting Minshew is an athletic core of receivers with a knack for deep, downfield plays. Leading the way for the receivers is Davontavean Martin, a 6’3” sophomore who has reeled in a team high 27 catches and three TDs but was basically blanked last week against USC, gaining a single yard on three grabs. While Martin struggled, fellow sophomore Jamire Calvin and junior Easop Winston remained consistent with Calvin stepping up to net seven receptions against the Trojans, good for 63 yards and Winston getting open for six receptions, gaining a season-high 143 yards and two TDs.
Interestingly, however unsurprising, the Cougars running back, junior James Williams is averaging better yardage through the air than he is on the ground. Williams has amassed 191 yards on 49 carries, averaging a respectable 3.9 yards per carry, but his 25 catches for 161 yards are producing 6.4 yards on average, making him a unique threat for the Utes to defend.
For everything that can be said about Washington State’s passing game, a major key to their early success has been in the trenches. Their offensive line has allowed Minshew to be sacked only three times and has limited the times the quarterback has been pressured, allowing receivers to break free for deep plays. Tackles Abraham Lucas and Andre Dillard have anchored the line thus far, keeping the pocket intact while Minshew is afforded extra time for receivers to open up. While Utah’s secondary is going to need to play a near perfect game, getting pressure on the line will be the most vital part to any success the Utes may have.
Despite Utah’s defensive prowess, stopping Washington State completely seems unlikely. Limiting the Minshew’s opportunities is key, which means Utah’s own offense is going to need to control time of possession from the start, a daunting prospect for a struggling Utah squad.