Utah, 'toughest test yet' awaits Washington
The unbeaten and fourth-ranked Washington Huskies are enjoying their best ranking since the end of the 2000 season, but they are heading into what their coach calls their toughest test of the season.
Washington (7-0, 4-0 Pac-12) plays at 17th-ranked Utah (7-1, 4-1) on Saturday afternoon, and Rice-Eccles Stadium will be rocking, further fueled by the energy of having ESPN's "College GameDay" program on campus.
"Rice-Eccles has been a great venue this year," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team is tied atop the Pac-12 South with Colorado. "We have had great support from our fans that makes it a tough place to play for opponents. We need that to be the case this weekend, and we know they will be loud."
Washington is coming off its 10th consecutive victory, a 41-17 win over Oregon State at Husky Stadium last week. The Huskies have defeated every opponent this season by at least 24 points, except for an overtime victory at Arizona.
Washington has the top-rated defense in the Pac-12 (14.6 points allowed per game), leads the country with in turnover margin (plus-2.0 per game), has the nation's No. 2-rated passer (Jake Browning, 199.6 efficiency rating) and the top rusher in the conference (Myles Gaskin, 103.9 yards per game).
The Huskies have outscored their opponents 200-24 in the first half.
"This will by far be our toughest test so far," Washington coach Chris Petersen said of Utah.
"I know their fans will be really excited. That's usually what happens. I think there was going to be really good energy in that stadium whether 'GameDay' came or not. This probably just pours a little more energy into the stadium."
A prime storyline is first-year starting Utah quarterback Troy Williams. He began his career at Washington, but transferred after the 2014 season, which was Petersen's first in Seattle.
"I told them I'd be back. I kept my promise," Williams said of when he left the Huskies.
"But I built everlasting friendships ... those are my brothers up there. I have the utmost respect for all of them. I just want to show people what I can do and continue to showcase my talents. It just gives it a little extra fire. It was hard going through everything I went through up there.
"I'm just real, real excited to get out there this weekend."
Williams has passed for only 221 yards in the past two games -- in a wet-and-windy day at Oregon State and last Saturday at UCLA -- but he hasn't had to do much, other than keep the defense honest with some deep passes.
Utah senior running back Joe Williams has become one of the best stories in college football, coming out of a five-week retirement due to injuries, rushing for 179 yards against the Beavers and a school-record 332 vs. the Bruins. The coaching staff convinced him to come back after other injuries ravaged the position.
"We were down to our last running back and all of a sudden he's back in the lineup and a huge plus for us," Whittingham said. "He pulled away from those UCLA defenders, and they have fast guys. They hand-pick who they want for that secondary and he outran them all."
Browning, a sophomore, has completed 118 of 172 passes for 1,709 yards, with 26 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Wide receivers John Ross (115 yards receiving against Oregon State) and Dante Pettis (112) last week became the first pair of Husky wideouts to go over 100 yards receiving in the same game since 2002.
Gaskin, a sophomore, already has more than 2,000 career rushing yards.
Utah's offense hasn't been dynamic for much of the season, but the Utes are coming off a 52-point effort against a talented UCLA defense. Washington's is even better. The Huskies have future NFL guys all over their defense -- including free safety Budda Baker, cornerback Sidney Jones and defensive tackle Vita Vea.
UW defensive end/outside linebacker Joe Mathis (team-high five sacks) missed last week's game because of a foot injury and doesn't seem likely to play this week. Utah free safety Marcus Williams, a 2015 first-team all-conference pick, did not play last week at UCLA because of an undisclosed injury and is not listed on this week's depth chart.
If the Huskies still have skeptics, it is because they have not played a team that is currently ranked (Stanford was No. 7 at the time of the meeting but has since fallen way off).
"I think this has been a pretty focused crew all along," Petersen said.
"They go to work and practice hard. I will tell you, we expect a lot out of these guys when they come in this building. We do not go through the motions."