One team hasn’t been able to win a conference game on the road. The other hasn’t been able to win a conference game at home. It’s the proverbial “something’s gotta give” when Utah travels to Washington State Saturday in a game that both teams desperately need to win to keep their hopes of a bowl berth alive.
A victory puts the Cougars at six wins and potentially in their first bowl game since 2003. A Utah win gives the Utes a fifth victory and keeps them in contention of advancing to the postseason.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team has dropped four straight and hasn’t won a game outside of the state this year, knows the stakes.
“We do have our back against the wall and we’ve had bowl eligibility as a goal for quite a few weeks now,” said Whittingham, whose team missed the postseason last year. “We’ve struggled and we haven’t been able to get off that fourth win. We’ve been on that fourth win for a while. We have two more opportunities and that really is the entire focus of our team is to get our senior class to a bowl game and in order to that we have to win the last two ... absolutely our back is to the wall and there is no margin for error.”
The Cougars, meanwhile, haven’t won at home since back-to-back victories against Southern Utah and Idaho back in September. They’ve dropped home contests to Stanford, Oregon State and Arizona State, losing those three games by an average of 54-21.
“We've done a really good job being focused on the road,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “We really have been focused on the road and played well and played some quality teams here. I think they're all excited to play at home and do a good job. We just need to focus on playing and do a good job at home or on the road.”
This is the final home game for the Cougars, who close out the regular season in the Apple Cup next week in Seattle. Utah wraps up its regular season at home against Colorado.
The Utes will turn to former walk-on Adam Schulz to lead the team following the news that Travis Wilson's career may be in jeopardy because of a pre-existing condition that was discovered during a concussion test.
Whittingham said that Schulz has a complete working knowledge of the playbook and as the No. 2 quarterback has been taking about 40 percent of the snaps in practice all season long. He started last week for the Utes against Oregon, a 44-21 road loss, when Wilson didn’t make the trip with the team.
Whittingham added that Schulz has the strongest arm of all the Utah quarterbacks, so it’ll have to adjust the offense accordingly.
“He’s a pocket passer,” Whittingham said. “He’s not a great runner. He’s an adequate runner. But his main strength is throwing the ball with that big arm that he has ... He’s been exposed to everything. We’ll tweak [the offense] to play to Adam’s strength. Not quite as adept runner as Travis is so we modify. But the volume of the game plan similar to what Travis would have.”
The Cougars are seeking their first bowl appearance since topping Texas, 28-20, in the Holiday Bowl in 2003. When asked what a bowl game would mean for his program, Leach didn’t go with the big-picture impact, rather a more compartmentalized tack.
“It would mean that we did a very good job on the very next play and then on the play after that, and the play after that, and the play after that until pretty soon it adds up to a game's worth of plays and we were successful, that's what it would mean,” Leach said. “And then based on how we improved we would have the opportunity to be a little bit better team the very next play after that.”
Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday has thrown an interception in every game this year. But interceptions have been hard to come by for the Utah secondary, which has only hauled in two picks this season.
“This year is ridiculous,” Whittingham said. “Two balls the entire season, which is not good. It’s one of the problems we’ve had, turnover margin. That’s the biggest disappointment. It hasn’t been coverage or being out of position. We’ve just missed on so many opportunities to intercept the football. We have to convert on some of those. Time is running out.”
And that issue is magnified on the road. In their three conference road games, Utah is minus-5 in turnover margin and is being outscored by an average of 33-16.
The Cougars, who will be honoring 19 seniors before kickoff, are coming off a 24-17 road win over Arizona. But with bigger goals on the horizon, Leach said this isn’t the week to stop and reflect.
“(The seniors were) instrumental for building the foundation of what we have going, which is going to improve as we go throughout the future,” Leach said. “But they were very key in helping lift this off and we're very excited to have the opportunity to play a couple more games with them. So this isn't really milestone time it's time for them to focus on the next play and practice ... All this good old days stuff, they can do it in the good old days. Not now.”