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Pick Six Previews: Utah to win a high-scoring game with Rising leading the charge

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Estimated reading time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah just finished the midseason bye week with a 5-2 record and a No. team are still in play, namely: defending their Pac-12 title and returning to the Rose Bowl.

Those goals received a significant boost as the Utes rallied to a dramatic 43-42 win over then-undefeated USC two Saturdays ago in Salt Lake City. USC led the game for 53 minutes and the game was tied for six minutes, but Utah led when it counted: the final 30 seconds.

The game ended in a shootout with two ace quarterbacks and two creative play designers battling it out.

Utah’s decision to go for the game-winning 2-point conversion attempt, rather than give away the extra point to force overtime, was brave in itself. But as Cam Rising stepped into the pocket and burst into the end zone, he went from a gutsy decision to an all-time Rice-Eccles moment for Utah football.

This head-to-head win can go a long way in determining who faces the Pac-12 Championship, which has done away with traditional North/South splits to go with a “#1 vs. #2” title format.

Last week, considering the bye week, I wrote an article compiling Utah’s midseason rankings in several of my advanced stats. The most shocking numbers came on the defensive side of the ball, with Utah well below what you’d expect to see on a yearly basis.

Thursday night at Pullman (8 p.m. MDT, FS1), Utah’s defense has an opportunity to get back on track against one of the lowest-rated offensive lines in pass protection.

game binder

(Statistical dominance adjusted by opponent via Pick Six Previews)

Average over 3 years 2019-21: Utah 68.9 (7th) | Washington State 44.2 (47th out of 66 Power Five)Season 2021: Utah 69.5 (7th) | Washington State 49.7 (39th out of 66 Power Five)2022 season: Utah 67.5 (12th) | Washington State 48.8 (41st of 66 Power Five)

USC won five spots for Utah in Game Grader 2022 from No. 17 to No. 12. Halfway through, Utah is below my 2022 projection of No. 4 nationally, but there are many opportunities to continue to grow.

Washington State registers at No. 41 in 2022 Game Grader, which is tied with their 2021 rating, as well as their three-year average. The Cougars beat Wisconsin for the program’s first ranked win since 2018, then led Oregon by 12 points in the final five minutes before a late-game collapse. They’re on a two-game losing streak, with both coming by two touchdowns (USC by 16 and Oregon State by 14).

Washington state with the ball

(Per game rankings adjusted by opponent via Pick Six Previews)

Washington State Offense: 39th of 66 Power FiveUtah Defense: 50th of 66 Power Five

They call it the Coug Raid offense. Offensive coordinator Eric Morris has had great success at the FCS level by turning the Incarnate Word program into a playoff team. Washington State got the forfeit, with Morris and dynamic quarterback Cam Ward both moving to The Palouse.

This mixes some of Mike Leach’s air raid pass concepts with modern concepts of running, passing, optioning and more dynamic groupings of personnel. In their biggest games this season, the Cougars have used a heavy dose of screen passing; and while the defense only got five players in the box, they weren’t afraid to run the ball between tackles.

Running back Nakia Watson was key to their win over Wisconsin (his former team) but is now sidelined with an undisclosed injury.

There have been growing difficulties for the passing offense, as Ward ranks ninth in the Pac-12 in yards per attempt and seventh in overall QB rating.

Washington State’s offensive line ranks in the bottom five nationally in my Sack Rate pass protection stat with 26 sacks allowed in seven games. It’s a huge opportunity for Utah to unlock the passing rush, which has been uncharacteristically absent this season at a school called “Sack Lake City.” Look for some of the younger defenders to step up with the extra week of preparation and development.

Utah with the ball

(Per game rankings adjusted by opponent via Pick Six Previews)

Utah offense: 19th of 66 Power FiveDefense of Washington State: 18th of 66 Power Five

It will be force on force when Utah gets the ball. Rising is ranked in the Top 15 (Power Five) in the QB rankings and has had to take on even more responsibility with the offensive game shifting more to the passing game.

Look even further to a pass-first approach by Utah for three reasons. Starting running back Tavion Thomas, who has more carries than the next two backs combined, would be out; Micah Bernard and Jaylon Glover will split the runs, and while both are great runners, the offense will miss their workhorse.

Additionally, Washington State’s defense is elite against the rush, placing No. 2 in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per carry. Their relative weakness is against the pass, with a below-average ranking in the opposing QB rating.

These factors point to Rising winning one of its biggest games of the season and tight end Dalton Kincaid picking up where he left off last game – nearly breaking records for the position.

game prediction

Utah has won three straight against the Cougars – all with double-digit margins and an 18-point winning average. Look for this one to be much closer.

I expect both offenses to be successful, but Utah to win a shootout by winning the rotational margin, and their veteran quarterback to seal the victory in the fourth quarter.

Utah 37 | Washington State 31

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Brett Ciancia is the owner of Pick Six Previews, a college football preview magazine ranked as “the most accurate season preview” since 2012 (via Stassen). Ciancia was named a 2019 Heisman Trophy elector and was invited to the 2020 FWAA All-America Team Selection Committee.

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