When his team’s schedule was finalized, Chris Petersen knew the opening month of the season for No. 10 Washington could end up being quite challenging.
The opener against Auburn was a given. But also lurking with almost as much potential difficulty was the Huskies’ Pac-12 Conference opener: at Utah, at night and against an opponent that has given Washington fits in recent seasons.
“We’re going to an extremely hard place to play, harder than where we played back East because we’re truly on their campus, a team that is super well coached and is going to be one of the better teams in the country when it’s all said and done,” Petersen said.
Washington (1-1) was the overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 before the season started, but the belief that the Huskies are the class of the conference will get tested by the Utes on Saturday night in Salt Lake City. It could end up being a preview of the conference title game a couple months down the road.
Washington is coming off a 45-3 win over North Dakota during which it couldn’t have looked more unimpressive for stretches on offense, especially with its running game. Utah (2-0) slogged through three quarters against Northern Illinois before Chase Hansen’s interception return for a touchdown with 2:36 left help lift the Utes to a 17-6 win.
“We know we didn’t play our best football yet, but Pac-12 play is here and we’re ready to go,” Hansen said.
Despite only a brief history, Washington and Utah have developed an entertaining rivalry. It could be simply because the games have been competitive. In 2015, Utah picked up its only win in the history between the programs, scoring the final 10 points in a 34-23 victory. Two years ago, the Huskies used a late punt return touchdown from Dante Pettis to escape with a 31-24 win in Salt Lake City. Last year, the Utes held a 30-23 lead in the closing minutes, only to see the Huskies score 10 points in the final 58 seconds — helped by a questionable timeout with 23 seconds left called by Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. Washington walked away with a 33-30 win.
WSU hosts perilous neighbor
Washington State didn’t fare so well the last time it hosted its challenging neighbor Eastern Washington.
The FCS school, which has been favored to win the Big Sky Conference this year, upset the Cougars 45-42 on their home field in 2016.
Both are rolling at 2-0 as they prepare to meet in Pullman again on Saturday.
Washington State coach Mike Leach said he doesn’t dwell on that last meeting. “You’ve got to move forward if you want to be really good,” Leach said.
Not that he doesn’t respect what Eastern Washington brings to the field.
“They always have some talented players,” Leach said. “They are well-coached and have a good tradition and put a good product on the field.”
Eastern Washington quarterback Gage Gubrud was making his first start during that game two years ago and he threw for 474 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 77 yards and another score. He is back to try again.
“We’ll ride him as long as we can,” EWU coach Aaron Best said. “You are only as good as your quarterback, no matter what offense you run.”
The Eagles lead the FCS with an average of 623 yards of offense per game. They’re also showing improvement over last year’s porous defense.
Washington State ranks second in defense in the FBS, allowing just 157 yards per game.
Meanwhile, graduate transfer Gardner Minshew II has quickly picked up the Air Raid offense, averaging 366 passing yards in Washington State’s first two games.
No. 20 Ducks get tuneup
The challenge for Oregon is to not look past San Jose State this Saturday in preparing for Stanford next weekend.
It may not be easy given the mismatch. San Jose State is 0-2, with losses to FCS-level UC Davis and to Washington State. The Spartans rank 113th among FBS teams (out of 129) in total offense with an average of 315 yards game, and 125th in total defense, allowing 566.6 yards a game.
The Ducks, meanwhile, have a pair of wins over Bowling Green and Portland State and moved up in the rankings to No. 20 this week . Quarterback Justin Herbert has thrown nine touchdown passes and ranks sixth in the nation for passing efficiency (213.4) while the Ducks’ scoring offense is ranked fourth (60 per game).
On top of that, Oregon has won 22 straight nonconference matchups at Autzen Stadium. So it’s no surprise the Ducks are 41-point favorites.
It was inevitable that in previewing the game coach Mario Cristobal was asked if he anticipated his team being focused on Saturday with Pac-12 conference play on the horizon.
“Not only anticipate it. Expect it. Demand it. Demand it from each other,” he said. “It’s just our approach and it has to stay that way.”
Oregon State looks for second win
Oregon State will try to turn its victory last weekend into a streak of sorts when the team visits Nevada on Saturday.
The Beavers’ confidence has no doubt been boosted by a 48-25 victory last week against Southern Utah that snapped an 11-game losing streak dating back to last season.
Add to that the performance so far by freshman running back Jermar Jefferson, who rushed for 238 yards and four touchdowns in the game. The only two Beavers in school history with more yards in a game were Bill Enyart, who holds the record with 299 in a game in 1968, and Steven Jackson, with 239 in a game in 2002.
Jefferson is averaging 142.5 yards a game, second in the nation and tops in the Pac-12.
With fellow running back Artavis Pierce out for four weeks with an injury, Jefferson is atop the depth chart for the game in Nevada, although coach Jonathan Smith said he’ll get others involved, too.
There are more questions for the Beavers at quarterback, with both Conor Blount and Jake Luton available to play, and Smith waiting to announce a starter until Saturday.
“It’s an awesome opportunity for us. Finish the nonconference, continue to improve and compete against a good football team that’s tough to beat, tough to beat at home,” Smith said.
Nevada is a 3.5-point favorite, the first time since 2006 that the Wolf Pack have been favored in the regular season against a Power Five team. Nevada is 6-34 all-time against Power Five opponents since moving to the top division in 1992.