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Huard: No. 10 UW Huskies’ Pac-12 opener at Utah is the biggest game of Jake Browning’s career

Jake Browning and the No. 10 UW Huskies meet Utah in a pivotal Pac-12 opener Saturday. (AP)

After a season-opening loss to Auburn and a disappointing offensive performance in a win over lowly North Dakota last week, there is no room for error for the No. 10 Washington Huskies in their Pac-12 opener at Utah on Saturday.

Pac-12 Network’s Evan Moore cautions Husky fans against panic

In fact, it’s the biggest game of senior quarterback Jake Browning’s career.

That tops the list of ESPN college football analyst Brock Huard’s keys in his preview of UW’s huge game in Salt Lake City.

1. The pressure is on Jake Browning

On Saturday in Utah, it will be the biggest game yet of Browning’s career as the pressure further mounts on his shoulders – and that includes the Alabama game two years ago in the College Football Playoff. This is the most pressure he has ever faced in his career, because legitimately there is somebody behind him that the program likes in Jake Haener. Everybody from the outside always loves the backup quarterback, too – he can do no wrong, and Haener didn’t have an incompletion last week in mop-up duty against North Dakota.

I don’t think there’s any question whatsoever that Browning is going to have to deliver if the Huskies are going to beat the Utes. Jake cannot play in a shell. When it comes to big games, he does one of two things. He either doesn’t really trust the people around him so there’s very little play-making, or he steps on the accelerator and thinks he’s Russell Wilson, running around and taking massive sacks and negative plays. Those things can’t happen in Utah.

He has to be a distributor, a facilitator, a point guard. He has to have some of the swag that he had when he went down to Eugene, Oregon and was pointing fingers in faces during a 70-21 win in 2017 – “Yeah, I’m Jake Browning, and we’re Washington, and we’re gonna come out here and we’re gonna ball.” You don’t feel that same cocksureness that he carried with him early in his career before he took the lumps he has in the past two seasons.

2. … and the Huskies as a whole.

The loss to Auburn in Week 1 means this game in Salt Lake City is for a playoff berth. The Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl won’t be on the line Saturday night, but any hope to get back to a national semifinal will be.

The matchup with Utah and its style of play makes this one of the Huskies’ most challenging foes. Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham runs through his players and coaches because he wears on them physically and emotionally, but in the short-term he builds a physically and mentally tough team. It’s a group that has played UW down to the final possession and minute the last two years, and I expect the same this time around.

3. First-down success will be the biggest key for UW.

The ability to stay ahead of the chains, not limit the playbook and ultimately keep Utah in a state of question on defense rather than one of pressure will be Washington’s best plan of attack. That game plan is not terribly unique and an objective in every game, but it’s a must against the Utes in particular with their physical prowess, crowd noise and hostile environment.

4. Keep Tyler Huntley in the pocket.

Utah’s quarterback got after Washington in Seattle a year ago with his play-making outside of the pocket, especially on third down. Making the athletic and dynamic Huntley a precision pocket passer will be objective No. 1 defensively for the Huskies.

5. Offensive and defensive players to watch.

Wide receiver Ty Jones has flashed big-play potential and game-breaking ability the first two weeks, and he will get his 1-on-1 opportunities Saturday. On defense, remember how the UW secondary was supposed to be the best in college football? That was the hype heading into the season, and the game-changing takeaways must pay off that hype now.

Jim Moore predicts this week’s Seahawks, Huskies and Cougars games