Brock Huard’s keys: Balance crucial for No. 4 Huskies in showdown vs physical No. 17 Utah
Oct 28, 2016, 7:00 AM | Updated: 8:46 am
No. 4 Washington (7-0 overall, 4-0 Pac-12) vs. No. 17 Utah (7-1, 4-1)
• Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City
• Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. Saturday
• TV: FOX Sports 1
• Line: Huskies by 10.5.
Washington at a glance: The Huskies are still on a roll, but after last week’s 41-17 victory over Oregon State, you can look at it in two ways. First, there’s the fact that they’re 7-0 and in line for a College Football Playoff berth if the season were to end today. Second, and more pessimistically, the win over Oregon State was impressive, but it wasn’t that impressive. Of all but one of the Huskies’ victories this year, that was their least-complete team effort, especially on defense, where a few big plays by the Beavers in the second half left UW fans scratching their heads. An unspecified injury to leading linebacker Joe Mathis certainly didn’t help matters, and there’s been no indication whether he’ll be back in action in Salt Lake City or will need more time to recover. The Huskies are still in a great position and trending up, but that could all change Saturday in what head coach Chris Petersen called their “toughest test so far” against the Utes.
Utah at a glance: UW isn’t the only reason ESPN’s “College GameDay” will air its show from Salt Lake. Utah is surging thanks to the return of running back Joe Williams, who was retired from the game of football all of three weeks ago but came back when a depleted Utes backfield meant he would get the lion’s share of carries. It’s turned out to be the right choice. In the two contests that the 5-foot-11, 205-pound senior has played since, he’s rushed for 501 yards and five touchdowns on 63 carries, including a monster 332-yard, four-score performance last week against UCLA. He has a bruising line to run behind, too, and the Utes are equally tough on defense, where they rank third in the Pac-12 in total defense (just behind UW). The Utes are especially effective defending against the run, allowing just 119.6 yards per game on the ground, good for 21st in the country.
Brock Huard’s key No. 1 for the Huskies: Set the edge on defense to stop Joe Williams. Looking at Washington’s run-stopping game against Oregon State in the second half, there were times that Oregon State created movement because the Huskies didn’t set the edge very well. When you play a big, physical group like Utah, which loves to pull their guards around and block down, setting the edge is crucial. If you were at the practice field this week, I guarantee you UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski was reinforcing that time and again. You have to set the edge and allow the flow of your defense to get going so that the linebackers and secondary that tackle so well get involved in the run game. The injury to Mathis could play a role in this, too. If Utah wins that edge and its big back is able to get his momentum going downhill, he’s going to cause some problems.
Huard’s key No. 2: Be completely balanced on offense. The Huskies are going to have to be balanced, because if they’re forced into a situation where they have to run the ball and Utah knows it, that’s advantage Utah, which has the most physical front seven Washington will have faced this year. Likewise in the secondary, Utah has a couple of big, fast and athletic kids, and if they get an opportunity to give some cushion and keep plays in front of them, you won’t see the explosive shots downfield that have been so beneficial to the Washington offense this season. Finding a rhythm, balance and mix on offense to keep the Utes on their heels, especially in their place, will be very important. If you go on the road and play in a difficult, loud environment, seeking balance is absolutely the bottom line offensively.
Huard’s key No. 3: Don’t take your foot off the gas. I don’t think Mathis’ absence impacted the Huskies that much last week, but I do think human nature did after they built a 31-0 lead by halftime and Oregon State scored 17 points in the second half. That’s the psychological warfare. I thought Washington’s technique and its execution was sound. The Huskies were dominant in that first half and they stepped off the gas just a little bit in their attention to detail after halftime. They can’t afford to do that against a top-ranked team, let alone one that runs the ball as well and is as physical as Utah. This game is Washington’s most physical test yet, making every detail that much more pivotal.