2018 Pac-12 Championship Preview – Utah v. Washington

Battle for the PAC-12 Championship

Tonight’s Friday night spotlight has the makings of the perfect rivalry game. There’s probably not much (if any) hope left for a PAC-12 representative going to the College Football Playoffs but it’ll still make a great rivalry game. And the Rose Bowl is on the line, so that’s (likely) good motivation too!

University of Washington

Yes, we previewed the Huskies last week, but a surprising amount has changed! So, soldier on!

The Huskies came into the season as the 6th-ranked team. They’ve fought back from falling out of the rankings entirely to get to 11th . A 10+ win season is still in reach if the Huskies can beat the Utes. The Huskies were projected to win the PAC-12 North and the PAC-12 Championship game in the preseason, but Utah stands in the way.

Offense

Washington is a unique case, normally schools have huge home and away splits. The difference is only about 20 passing yards, and while larger, the rushing numbers are only about 50 yards difference. Defensively, the Dawgs allow about 30 yards difference in passing yardage and 20 rush yards between home and away.

Passing: While I pointed out how unique Washington’s situation is as far as sheer number of yards. They fall right back into line with the rest of the PAC-12 Conference (and frankly, every other team) with touchdowns and interceptions. Washington is playing great at home with 12 touchdowns to a mere 4 interceptions on 2 more attempts. On the road/neutral site, however, they’ve only managed 6 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. One final note on these differences is that they lost 9.1% completion rate solely by leaving Husky field. (Note: This has improved a full 2% because of the game in Pullman.)

Rushing: Last weekend’s game in Pullman really helped the Huskies have revive their road stats (which were previously horrendous). The Huskies have managed to right some of their season-long wrongs in terms of rushing on the road. As a result, the splits have narrowed to 5.1 yards per attempt at home and a hair over 4.5 in road/neutral site(a yard per attempt increase over last week) games. They accumulated 1206 yards of rushing offense on the year at home and on the road the total 1014. And finally, the most painful part, they have 14 rushing touchdowns at home, compared to only 10 in road/neutral site games.

Defense

Passing: From a defensive standpoint, just to point out how unique that completion rate decrease is. The Husky’s defense allows a 2.7% (up from 0.9% last week) difference between home games and away games. The yardage, yards per attempt, completion percentage and even rating are all very similar. The Huskies allow about the same amount of touchdowns regardless of location, and with last week’s win, they were able to even out the home/away splits for interceptions. But, they also average more sacks, for less lost yardage, to the tune of about an additional half-sack per game.

Rushing: The Huskies have been pretty solid on this side of the ball all season. They are allowing slightly over one rushing touchdown per game (thanks Washington State). They have also managed to avoid the dreaded splits on defense with yards, yards per attempt, and touchdowns all pretty much the same. The only really difference has been that they’ve faced more attempts per game but the statistics indicate little, if any, downside for that.

Utah

The Utes season started picked to be second in the PAC-12 South behind USC, and only slightly ahead of Arizona and UCLA. The projections picked only one team (Utah) correctly in the top 3, and they were in the wrong spot (Utes won the South).

Offense

True to typical home/away splits, Utah is averaging almost 60 yards more per game rushing at home (244) as opposed to road/neutral site (186). Passing statistics have a similar yardage differential, as well, with 186 (road/neutral site) and 244 at home. Typically the Utes have been very run-oriented, starting from a run-pass option (RPO) driven by the quarterback. However, since Tyler Huntley broke his collarbone they have struggled to score the same number of points.

Passing: The Utah offense has some trouble adapting to having Tyler Huntley back to start the season, but grew into it. Through August/September the passing game was responsible for a total of 4 touchdowns (with 2 interceptions), in October this changed to 9 touchdowns (with 4 interceptions) and a 65-point increase in passer/qb ranking. However, after the injury the passer rating has returned to what it was early in the season, but this time with Jason Shelley at the helm. In addition, the touchdowns have returned to 4, and the interceptions have increased slightly. What is strange though — is that the Utes average per completion has stayed right about 7 (overall and with home/away splits). Almost half of the Utes 7 interceptions have come on the road (4), where they attempt less throws (nearly 8 less). They also have a lower completion percentage and have 300 yards less on the season to accompany the 60 yard home/road splits. I can’t remember the last year that Utah started and finished with the same starting quarterback.

Rushing: This has been the focus of the Utah in recent years even sending a few running backs to the pros. This year follows suit, and unfortunately, their season-ending injury record has been continued too. The Utes have been good with the run game no matter where they’ve gone with only a 15-yard difference in home/road average and only a 1 TD difference (strangely on the road). They’ve even managed to keep the yards per carry and number of yards pretty similar, which is reflected in only a 42 difference between yards gained at home/on the road. There hasn’t been much of a drop off at all since Zack Moss was injured and replaced by a mixture of Armand Shyne and TJ Green.

Defense

Passing: If there’s an area for Washington to exploit, it’s definitely here. The Utes are giving up almost 80 more passing yards per game. However, they have a unique situation — despite allowing more yards (on more attempts) the Utes have 4.5 times the number of interceptions on the road. They have 9 interceptions in road/neutral games and only 4 at home. Pair this with the fact that the Utes are actually allowing more touchdowns at home (9) versus on the road (7), the Huskies will need to be careful. We’ve already noted the increased likelihood of (whichever) Washington QB throwing additional interceptions away from home — and the Utes (passing) defense improves on the road.

Rushing: The Utes are actually allowing more rushing yards at home than they are in away/road games, though its not a substantial difference (about 10 yards). They are averaging less than 3 rushing yards per attempt regardless of location. However, the last time they played Washington at Rice Eccles Stadium, they gave up more than 4 yards per attempt. (Caveat: Two Utes defensemen were thrown out for targeting.) The Utes allow basically the same amount of touchdowns (7 on the road, 6 at home).

The Game

The game is played at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, California with kickoff at 5:00p PST/8:00p EST).

The neutrals are expecting 45  points to be put up on the board and Washington to come out on top (~5 points).

Keys to a win for each side

Washington: 

  • Keep the ball on target. The numbers aren’t good for Washington QBs away from home and the Utes want to make it worse.
  • Play safe, the Utes allow a lot more yards away from home. Find the safe play; you don’t need to force the football into double- or triple-coverage. There will be options.
  • Run the ball. The Huskies did this better last weekend in Pullman than they did at any point in the rest of the season. Even if they regress some as far as yards gained, Miles Gaskin/Salvon Ahmed are serious weapons.
  • Keep the pressure on, Washington forces fumbles at nearly three times the rate of the Utes. The Utes have been poor (especially on special teams and return opportunities).

Utah:

  • Keep your guys on the field. Regardless of my opinions on targeting calls — they are being made. The Utes can’t afford to lose key defensive pieces for this game.
  • Pass short for easy, make-able completions. The Utes have ridiculous playmakers if they can get the ball into their hands (especially Covey). They can turn a short gain into a huge play in no time, plus forces the defense to play honest.
  • Keep the defense guessing. There have been a few games this weekend (early season and now.. late season) where the Utes playcalling has leaned too much towards the run. I know they use the RPO as a base, but establish some passes. This is exactly the kind of thing that led to the Shelley 35-yard scamper in the BYU game.
  • Stop Washington’s run game. Jake Browning (as hard is might be to believe) was benched once already this year. I think if the Utes can get him flustered and “hearing footsteps” he’ll make missteps. Washington has turned the ball over a lot via the quarterback. My suspicion is that if the run game is sniffed out, it will make the QB try to force passes (which is the #1 thing they shouldn’t do) which will mean a few more interceptions.

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