The Early Glimpse: Cougs vs. Utah

COUGS LOST 30-27 IN OT LAST TEAR TO UTAH

IF WE HAD taken a poll this summer asking Cougar fans what their idea of a successful season would be, some might have said a more exciting product. A few might have gone for a Pac-12 championship. Still others might have been OK with a competitive team, win or lose. But I suspect the majority would have set the bar for a successful season at…

… a bowl game.

Any bowl game. Sun, Vegas, Weedeater, whatever. Just a bowl game.

If you're in that camp, then the Cougars' backs are officially against the wall. Washington State is 2-6, and in order to qualify for a bowl game, the Cougars will have to run the table and win their remaining four games, starting Saturday at Utah.

At this point, probably only the team and diehard Cougar fans envision a four-game winning streak. This team hasn't put together four good quarters yet, let alone four games. But hot runs by improbable teams have happened before, so why not WSU?

There are no top 25 teams among the Cougars' four remaining games. It's Utah, UCLA, Arizona State and Washington. Two at home, two on the road.

The odds of a four-game winning streak are long, but there isn't one of those games, by itself, where you would think the Cougs have no chance. They're all winnable, to varying degrees.

The toughest one may be Saturday, at Utah. The Utes are decidedly better at home than on the road. They have a young secondary, and start a freshman at quarterback. Utah just got done boatracing California, but it was a win fueled by three touchdowns scored either on a fumble or kickoff return.

UCLA might be country's least scary 6-2 team. The Bruins can score a lot of points, but can also give up a bunch. Should the game be played in the late afternoon or early evening, a cold November day in Pullman probably isn't going to be ideal for the SoCal Bruins.

Arizona State, coming off road games at nationally-ranked Oregon State and USC, could be in a beaten down state of mind (hey, I'm trying to keep the glass half full here.) The Sun Devils have also lost their last two home games.

Which leads us to the finale, Washington. The Huskies are the worst of the Cougars' final four teams, and it's not close. Don't buy the hype of UW's upset over Oregon State. Sean Mannion wasn't ready to play, period. Had the Beavers started Cody Vaz, they would have rolled the Huskies. This is not a good offensive team. Whether WSU has a three-game winning streak or an eight-game losing streak heading into the Apple Cup, I give the Cougars a good shot to win.

6-6 anyone?

The kickoff: Washington State (2-6, 0-5) at Utah (3-4, 1-4), noon in Rice Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City. Game televised by Pac-12 Network. The betting line is Utah by 12.

About Utah: Quarterback Travis Wilson could be a rising star in the Pac-12. Just a year ago, he was a high school quarterback. The 6-foot-6 Wilson makes his fourth career college start against WSU. Raw but progressing, Wilson was solid though unspectacular in the Utes' 49-27 win over California.

The Cougars' best chance figures to load up on the Utes' running game and make Wilson win the game. Easier said than done, as running back John White is a load. Last year, White ran for 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns. This season, White's numbers have slipped, but are still respectable at 518 yards and three touchdowns.

Defensively, Utah's strength is stopping the run, as the Utes rank among the country's top 25. But there's no question the Utes can be had through the air, as they rank 11th in the Pac-12 in defending the pass.

Washington State is likely to pay extra attention to kickoff coverage this week, after Utah's Reggie Dunn returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against California, each one 100 yards.

Last year: Utah blunted a WSU rally to beat the Cougars 30-27 in overtime. The Utes led 27-17 late in the fourth quarter, when Washington State scored 10 points during the final 3:14 to force overtime. The game will be remembered for Connor Halliday's toughness, as it was determined hours after the game that he played with a lacerated liver.

The series: Last year was the first time WSU played Utah since 2000, when the Cougars beat the Utes 38-21 in Salt Lake City. Washington State will look to even the overall series Saturday, as Utah leads 6-5.

Familiar faces: Utah doesn't have any players on its roster from the state of Washington, or a coach with WSU ties.

Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel

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