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November 22, 2013

Ask The Insider: Utah Preview

PULLMAN | In what could arguably be called the most important game for Washington State in a decade, the Mike Leach and the Cougars will host their final home of the 2013 season when Utah comes to town.

Seeking bowl-eligibility for the first time since 2006 and a chance to reach their first bowl game since the 2003 Holiday Bowl, the Cougars face a pesky Utes team that has gone wire-to-wire with some of the Pac-12 Conference's elite teams.

After knocking off then No. 5 Stanford at home, Kyle Whittingham's group has dropped four consecutive games and at 4-6 on the season, they're facing a must win game in Martin Stadium to keep their bowl hopes alive. Dealing with a rash of devastating injuries already, Utah recieved tough news earlier this week when starting quarterback Travis Wilson was sidelined for the rest of the season with a head injury, paving way for walk-on signal caller Adam Schulz to take the reigns of the offense.

Led by one of the nation's premier defensive lineman, Trevor Reilly, the Utes get after the quarterback at an alarming rate and have registered a nation's best 36 sacks through ten games. The Cougars offensive line will have their hands full when dealing with the Utes' relentless pass rush and the battle in the trenches could very well decide the game.

WazzuWatch.com caught up with UteZone.com Managing Editor Dan Sorensen to discuss what the Cougars can expect to see when the two teams clash in a pivotal late-season matchup in Pullman at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday:

WW: After the tough news of losing starting quarterback Travis Wilson for the year and possibly more, what does back-up quarterback Adam Schulz bring to the Utes offense? With Schulz, a typical pocket passer, at the helm of the offense, will Whittingham let him use his arm more or will they rely on the running game?

DS: The loss of Wilson for the season was devastating news for a team that has seen more than its share of bad news this season. Adam Schulz was the clear number two quarterback coming out of fall camp and is definitely more of a pocket passer than Wilson. Schulz has the strongest arm on the team, and played reasonably well against Oregon last week on the road. The Ute receivers dropped half a dozen passes in the game, which would have greatly improved Shulz' numbers had they been actual catches.

With a week of practice under his belt, Schulz will likely air it out more than he has in the past, but the Utah game plan will still be to establish the run early and try to control the line of scrimmage. If the Utes are able to establish the run effectively, Schulz is dangerous enough to make plays.

WW: Who are the playmakers that the Washington State defense will need to account for? How has the offensive line play been this year?

DS: Dres Anderson is Utah's leading receiver and has been a big play threat all season long. He sometimes struggles with drops, but is easily Utah's most electric player on offense. Junior tight end Jake Murphy returned from a broken wrist for the Oregon game and made his presence felt with a jaw dropping one handed catch for a first down as well as a long touchdown catch. Murphy will be a much bigger part of the Utah offense against WSU than he was against Oregon.

The run game will be critical for the Utes, and they will rely heavily on the three headed monster of Bubba Poole, Kelvin York and Lucky Radley to establish the ground game. All three have played well at times this season, and all three have different strengths. York is a power back that can be punishing between the tackles, whereas Poole and Radley are much faster and can both be dangerous in the open field. Poole is the best receiver of the three, and don't be surprised if Utah throws to Poole a lot in the flat to get him the ball in space.

WW: With just two interceptions so far this season, how well equipped is the Utah defense to face the Cougars' pass heavy offense? Who are the playmakers on defense that could have an impact on this game?

DS: The Utah defense has been an enigma this year. The front seven is among the best in the Pac-12, and the defensive line has been especially good in Pac-12 play. By the end of the day Washington State fans will be well acquainted with defensive end Trevor Reilly. He leads the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks, and is one of the most dynamic defensive linemen in the country. Tackle Tenny Palepoi is tough up the middle and is an effective run stopper and pass rusher.

The secondary has made huge strides since the beginning of the season, and is led by senior corner Keith McGill. The lone Achilles heel of the defense all season has been its inability to force turnovers - especially interceptions. It's not like the Utah secondary hasn't had it's chances. They have dropped at least a dozen interceptions over the course of the season, which makes that lack of picks an especially disturbing trend.

The Ute defense leads the nation in sacks per game, and will try to pressure Connor Halliday into making mistakes. If they actually hang on to one or more of those errant passes, the Utes could have a big day.

WW: After a huge, emotional victory over Stanford, Utah has dropped four straight and has yet to win a game outside the state of Utah this season. What is the team morale like and what has been the biggest factor in their road woes and recent losing streak?

The losses have been frustrating for the Utes. The losses at Arizona and USC came at a time where quarterback Travis Wilson had a seriously injured throwing hand that hampered the Utah offense's ability to move the ball. Utah had Arizona State on the ropes with a 12 point 4th quarter lead, before losing by a point after a furious comeback by the Sun Devils, and the Oregon game was typical of most Oregon games this season. Considering three of the four teams are ranked in the top 25, it's been a tough stretch.

As far as the morale of the team, this is one of the toughest, most resilient teams I've seen while covering Utah football. They've gone toe-to-toe with most of the elite teams in the conference while being decimated by injuries. It's clear that the program has had to make up significant ground moving from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, but the players are approaching the situation with a positive attitude. They want to win for the seniors, and they want to win for Wilson.

DS: What is your prediction for the game? Score?

I fully expect Utah to come out in this game fired up and ready to fight. Utah has played extremely well against the best teams in the conference, but have come up short too many times. It seems to me that they see this game as their last chance to make a statement. The defense has been very good over the past two months, and they'll keep the score low. The offense will do just enough to keep a much-improved Cougar team at bay. My prediction? Utah wins a squeaker 27-24.

After the loss, Washington State will take the Apple Cup the following week and be bowl eligible once again.

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