SALT LAKE CITY -- Washington State begins its own personal playoff when it travels to Utah on Saturday with the nineteenth-ranked Cougars on the road to a potential Pac-12 North title.
Coach Mike Leach declined to call this a do-or-die game in the quest to win the Pac-12 North and secure a berth in the league title game, but it is definitely key. WSU last won a conference title in 2002 when it tied USC. The program last won the conference outright in 1930 and it has never played in the championship game since divisions were created in 2011.
"We want to win all the games," Leach said.
Washington State (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12) sits just behind No. 9 Washington (8-1, 5-1) in the North standings and the two meet in the Apple Cup on Nov. 25. The Huskies faced Stanford on Friday and play Utah (5-4, 2-4) next week.
If Washington State goes into the regular-season finale tied or one loss behind Washington, it will be playing for the division title. The Cougars already beat the Cardinal (6-3, 5-2), so they hold the tiebreaker if they finish with the same conference record.
Simply put, Washington State will play for a conference title if it wins its final two games because it would at least tie Washington then hold the tiebreaker with a head-to-head victory.
The Cougars are working on another milestone as quarterback Luke Falk needs to throw two touchdown passes to break the Pac-12 career passing touchdown record. He set the league's career passing yards record (13,806) last week.
The Logan, Utah, native will be playing in his first regular-season college game in his home state on Saturday.
"What makes them so successful is the fact they don't remember anything," Utah defensive back Boobie Hobbs said. "They throw interceptions and you know they're coming right back and throwing it again. It's real special if you have a quarterback who can throw it 60 times a game and may throw two interceptions and still come out there and throw it. That is a strong weapon. Definitely fun. I hope it's not a nightmare. It can turn out either way. We're up for the challenge."
Other things to watch when Utah hosts Washington State:
'D' UP: Leach's teams are known for their high-scoring Air Raid offenses but Washington State's defense is allowing just 22.7 points per game - No. 3 in the Pac-12 and its best effort in the last 10 years. The pass defense (161.1 yards) is ranked No. 6 in the nation. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted "the way they fly around" with undersized defensive linemen and the speed and effort of the entire unit. "They're not big 300-pound guys" Whittingham said. "They're very active. They're hard to get blocked because they're so slippery and they slant and move on virtually every slant. ... Undersized defense that's very effective."
BLAIR-ING ABSENCE: The Utes will be without starting free safety Marquise Blair, who suffered a season-ending lower leg injury last week. He is third on the team with 48 tackles. Corrion Ballard is scheduled to start in his place.
RUNNING UTES: Utah had a season-high 50 rushes for a season-high 272 rushing yards last week. Running back Zack Moss had a career-high 153 rushing yards and quarterback Tyler Huntley had a career-high 93 yards on the ground. The Utes' new offense is a pass-first scheme but they've had the most success when the running game is going. UCLA brought in one of the worst rush defenses in the nation last week, so Utah will try to have that kind of production against a squad ranked No. 35.
FACTS & FIGURES: A victory gives WSU a 9-2 start for the first time since 2003. ... WSU's James Williams leads all FBS running backs with 56 receptions. ... Utah adjusted its season goal to becoming bowl eligible after dropping four straight. It secures that with one more win. ... Utah punter Mitch Wishnowsky leads the nation with a 44.91 net punting average and kicker Matt Gay is No. 1 in the country with 21 made field goals.
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