- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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On Oct. 20, things were pretty dreary for Utah and Washington. The Utes had just lost their fourth Pac-12 game in a row at Oregon State. The Huskies had just lost their third conference game in a row at Arizona. Each season was at a proverbial crossroads, and the upcoming opponent was a tough one.
Both, however, got off the canvas, wiped away the blood shed the previous weeks, and came out swinging. The Utes dumped California and Washington State over the next two weeks, and the Huskies bested Oregon State and Cal.
Now both have seen sagging bowl hopes rise. Yet they stand in each others' way on Saturday. Utah visits Washington at its home-away-from-home, CenturyLink Field, with both trying to set a positive trajectory for the final quarter of the season.
For both, the uptick should be first traced to the schedule. It's gotten easier.
But both team are playing better, particularly the Utes previously-sputtering offense. Coach Kyle Whittingham noted that things have started to click in every area, see consecutive games with 49 points.
Said Whittingham, "I think it's the evolution of our quarterback, [true freshman] Travis Wilson. I think [offensive coordinator] Brian Johnson is starting to feel more comfortable. I think the offensive line has continued to improve. You've got guys making plays. Very few mistakes. We're not dropping footballs and committing ignorant penalties. I think it's all the way around. John White is back on track."
The formula is efficient play from Wilson and 100-yard efforts from White. The Utes are 11-0 over the past two seasons when White hits the century mark, which includes the last two wins.
As for the Huskies, the offense has been consistently underwhelming, but the defense has taken a big step forward under first-year coordinator Justin Wilcox. The Huskies are giving up 26.3 points per game, nearly 10 fewer than a year ago, an 393.4 yards per game, 60 fewer than last year. Last year, they gave up 6.4 yards per play, this year they are yielding 5.8.
The big issues here will be the play of the offensive lines, and Wilson dealing with a boisterous road crowd. Wilson's first two starts were on the road, and the Utes scored just 21 points combined at UCLA and Oregon State.
As for the lines, both have been works in progress throughout the season. And both have played better of late.
"I feel good about the progress that we have made," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said. "I think they have matured especially the last two weeks and hopefully we can continue that the next three weeks.''
The Huskies young line should have its hands full with the Utes tough front-seven, led by All-American defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who figures to command two interior blockers.
"Star is a tremendous player," Sarkisian said. "It starts right there in the middle with 92."
For the Utes offense, it starts with establishing White and not putting pressure on Wilson to throw on the road.
If Washington wins, it will improve to 6-4 and become bowl eligible with winnable games ahead at Colorado and Washington State.
If Utah wins, it will even its record at 5-5 and only need to split its final two games with Arizona and at Colorado.
It's fair to say that the winner will be on the cusp of a successful season, while the loser might feel like it's Oct. 20 again.
23hChantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell