Looking to become bowl eligible for its fourth-straight year, the University of Utah football team must win one of its two remaining games, and it has the chance to do that on Saturday, Nov. 18 against the Washington Huskies. In preparation for the game, The Utah Chronicle spoke to Josh Kirshenbaum, the sports editor and football beat reporter for The Daily, the University of Washington’s student newspaper to discuss the matchup.
Q: Washington earned its second loss of its season this past Friday against Stanford, 30-22. What did the Cardinal do that the Huskies weren’t able to do or didn’t do enough of?
JK: Convert third downs — over, and over, and over again. Washington’s defense did a good job of getting the Cardinal to third down, but just could not get off the field. At one point in the fourth quarter, Stanford was 10-of-15 on third down. A large part of that was due to the fact that Stanford’s main receivers and tight ends are in the 6’2”-6’7” range, while UW’s defensive backs run on the shorter side, and unlike his game the week before against WSU, KJ Costello was able to make the easy throws in crucial situations. On the flip side, Washington’s offense stalled out for most of the third quarter, allowing the Cardinal to get the ball back and grind the game away, as Stanford loves to do.
Q: What’s the state of the Huskies after the Stanford loss, but knowing the Pac-12 Championship game isn’t out of reach for them?
JK: Within the team, it’s the same as it always is; Chris Petersen’s squad has completely adopted his mentality, and that mentality is to block out any of the outside noise and focus on the upcoming week. On Monday, I asked him if he would use the loss as motivation, and he looked at me like I’d grown a second head.
There’s going to be a lot of Cal fans in Seattle this Saturday, but the team itself can’t control anything except its game at 7:30, so that’s where it’s at mentally. It would be great if Cal pulls a minor miracle, but as Petersen said this week, it’s not like Washington won’t play as hard if Stanford wins.
Q: Utah has won one of the past 10 games it has played against Washington. What do the Huskies need to do to add another win to their record?
JK: The offense needs to stay within its progression. The Huskies found themselves behind the chains a lot early on in the season, and while that’s improved, when their drives break down, it’s usually due to a broken-down run play that only goes for a yard or a bad incomplete pass. This leads to 2nd-and-long scenarios, which force the Dawgs into passing situations, which all too often lead to 3rd-and-longs and punts. If Washington can repeatedly get four or five yards on first downs, it’ll be in a good situation.
That being said, the Huskies also need to continue to open up the field. Last year, Washington had one of the most dynamic offenses in the country. This year, we’re learning just how much of that was due to John Ross’ pure speed. That being said, the past two games, Washington has brought back the downfield passing game, and gone for way more explosive plays. All five touchdowns against Oregon went for at least 30 yards, and in the first half against Stanford, UW was finding 10-yard plays pretty much at will (obviously, that well would dry up in the second half).
If Washington can get into 2nd-and-short or 3rd-and-short scenarios, it will be able to stretch out the Utah defense and give it a great shot to win.
Q: What is it about Dante Pettis (Husky who broke the NCAA career record for punt return touchdowns this season) that makes him dangerous?
JK: I’d say punt to him and find out, but Utah did that last year, didn’t it?
All joking aside, Dante Pettis is not the fastest player on the UW roster, nor does he have the best moves. Pettis has two things going for him. The first is that Washington’s punt return unit as a whole is one of the best I’ve seen. As Petersen routinely says, UW players don’t “have” to play on special teams, they “get” to play on special teams. The result is a punt return unit made up of the 11 best athletes on the roster, and his “jammers” do a great job of neutralizing opposing gunners.
As importantly, Pettis knows how to use his blockers, and can weave his way through the coverage like nobody else I’ve ever seen. He’s not juking people out of their shoes so much as lining up his blocks so defenders never even get that close to him.
Q: Who/What do the Utes need to be focusing on?
JK: Teams that have done well against Washington have stopped the run and forced the Huskies to be one-dimensional. As I talked about earlier, Washington has a bad habit of getting into passing situations on second and third down, and if Utah can take a lead into the latter half of the game, it will force the UW playcalling to skew even more pass-happy. Take away Washington’s running attack, and it makes it that much easier to keep the Huskies off the board.
Q: Who will win? And why?
JK: This could be a challenge for Washington. The Huskies haven’t faced a mobile quarterback like Tyler Huntley in a while, and Utah’s defense is definitely up there with the best in the Pac-12. That being said, I think that while it may be close to start, Washington pulls away and wins it by a score along the lines of 38-17.