Utah looks for its first-ever Pac-12 championship, while Washington aims for two in three seasons.
The road to Levi’s Stadium wasn’t without detours for Pac-12 Conference Championship Game participants Utah and Washington.
The Utes rebounded from an 0-2 start in conference competition with an outstanding October, then proceeded to begin November — a month notorious for derailing Utah’s championship aspirations — losing both quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss to season-ending injuries. But a strong finish and some help from Oregon booked Utah’s first-ever trip to Santa Clara.
Washington awaits, winning the North as predicted before the season. But while the Huskies were expected to reach this point, the journey they took defied expectations. Washington’s College Football Playoff outlook took an immediate hit opening week, and two heartbreaking road losses last month complicated the process of pursuing a second Pac-12 title in three years. An Apple Cup blanketed in snow functioned as a de facto divisional championship, and Washington rose to the occasion in a 28-15 win.
A berth in the Rose Bowl Game is now at stake. Washington has not been in the Granddaddy of ‘Em All since the 2000 season; Utah’s never been.
Pac-12 Championship Game: Utah vs. Washington
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 30 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Levi’s Stadium (Santa Clara, Calif.)
TV: FOX Spread: Washington -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jason Shelley on the big stage
When he was unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight as Utah’s quarterback following Tyler Huntley going down with a broken collarbone in the Utes’ Nov. 3 game at Arizona State, Shelley struggled. Utah could not move the ball, and the loss took control of their destiny away from the Utes.
Utah regained that control in part because a much different Shelley lined up behind center for the wins over Oregon and Colorado. He passed for 262 yards against the Ducks, two touchdowns against the Buffaloes, then capped it off with a spectacular fourth quarter in Utah’s come-from-behind win over rival BYU to cap the regular season.
“One thing about Jason Shelley is you don’t need to say much of anything in that regard. He’s completely confident, poised, and nothing seems to bother him,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Confidence can only go so far against a defense the caliber of Washington’s. The Huskies held Washington State to just 15 points a week ago, flexing their muscles in a must-win game, and likely eliminating rival quarterback Gardner Minshew from the Heisman Trophy conversation in the process. Shelley will need to make plays with his feet, but more importantly, avoid costly mistakes. Utah’s three turnovers in the September meeting at Rice-Eccles Stadium squashed any hope of a Utes rally.
2. Defense wins championships
The Pac-12’s top two defenses in a variety of statistical categories shape the identity of this year’s championship participants, including points allowed. Washington ranks No. 1 at 16.5 points yielded per game, and Utah’s less than a field goal behind at 19.3.
In a matchup of two programs identified on the defensive side, a few plays can make the difference. September’s meeting followed a predictable script, with the teams combining for just 28 points. A single defensive lapse on Myles Gaskin’s long touchdown run, and a few gaffes on offense in the form of turnovers cost the Utes.
On the flip side, Washington knows firsthand the value of a few defensive plays in winning a championship. A couple of Taylor Rapp interceptions in the 2016 Pac-12 Championship Game, including a pick-six, turned a closely contested game against Colorado due to Washington’s offensive struggles into a blowout for the Huskies.
Rapp’s back this time around, and he’s just one of several potential difference-makers for Washington. Chief among them is linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, the one-man tackling machine poised to win Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year — if Utah’s Chase Hansen doesn’t.
“He’s one of the leaders, if not the leader,” Whittingham said of the linebacker Hansen’s role in the Utah defense.
In a matchup like this, a single defensive play or lapse might be the turning point.
3. The value of experience
The gravity of playing for a conference championship could weigh on a program that hasn’t done it since Utah won the Mountain West in 2008. In contrast, Washington knows the experience well. Several key contributors in the 2016 Pac-12 Championship Game victory are Washington’s stars again this time around.
In addition to Rapp, who was MVP of the game two years ago, the Washington defense features Tevis Bartlett, whose seven tackles and two tackles for a loss were team highs in 2016. JoJo McIntosh made five tackles that night, as well. Then on offense, Gaskin aims to repeat the 159-yard performance that he had against Colorado. He’s in position to do so, coming in with a three-game streak with at least 135 rushing yards.
Quarterback Jake Browning wasn’t his best in the 2016 installment, completing just 9-of-24 pass attempts, although two went for touchdowns. Playing for a Rose Bowl and the opportunity to close out an illustrious career on a high note should have the senior motivated to improve on his previous championship showing.
Washington owns a three-game winning streak over Utah in the past three seasons, all of which were hotly contested. This year’s outcome was by two scores, but the actual back-and-forth of that contest was much closer. Utah fell victim to self-inflicted errors, and failed to capitalize on opportunities.
The prospect of playing without Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss this time after struggling to put points with them is daunting, though Jason Shelley’s broken out over the last few weeks, and Armand Shyne is a more than capable No. 1 running back.
Two potential keys to follow: tackles for a loss and explosive receiving plays. Utah’s racked up an astounding 98 tackles for a loss on the season, with Chad Hansen recording 22 and Bradlee Anae racking up 13.5. The Utes will need to get to Jake Browning and keep Myles Gaskin from getting out of the backfield, thus extending Washington’s down-and-distance and increasing the likelihood of Browning trying to force a play.
Conversely, long passing plays provide the potential antidote to Utah’s outstanding defense. The Huskies have 128 of 10-plus yards on the season, second in the Pac-12. While Browning doesn’t have gaudy passing numbers, the corps of pass catchers including Aaron Fuller (who went for 108 receiving yards against Utah), Ty Jones, and tight end Hunter Bryant (recently returned from injury) have all connected with Browning for long gains this season.
A defensive struggle should ensue, with a handful of big plays likely to make the difference. Washington’s familiarity with this stage and variety of playmakers should be enough to send the Huskies to Pasadena for New Year’s.