As the 10th-ranked Washington football team prepares to face Utah, on a brisk Saturday night in Salt Lake City, in the shadows of the Wasatch Range and in front of a national TV audience on ESPN, a tall order all the way around, here are 10 probing questions:
- Who are Mitch and Matt?
They represent the best college kicking combination in the country. Utah punter Mitch Wishnowsky and kicker Matt Gay are a special-teams mismatch for other teams. Each has been the best in the nation at his position at one point in time. Wishnowsky was the 2016 Ray Guy Award winner, Gay last year’s Lou Groza Award winner. Wishnowsky, a former Australian Rules football player, averages nearly 44 yards per punt over two-plus seasons. Gay, a Utah native and former college soccer player, converted on 30 field goals last year, including five over 50 yards, his longest a 56-yarder. Advantage, Utah.
- Who is Gary Andersen and why does he matter?
Andersen currently is Utah’s assistant head coach and defensive assistant coach. He’s also the guy who forced Washington to hire a new offensive coordinator after Jonathan Smith left to fill the Oregon State head coaching vacancy—created by Andersen’s abrupt midseason resignation as the losses piled up. Andersen previously coached Wisconsin to 9-4 and 11-3 seasons and surprisingly walked away from that Big Ten powerhouse, too … to coach the Beavers. A football free spirit.
- What sort of football atmosphere awaits the Huskies?
Well, it won’t be warm and cuddly. Rice-Eccles Stadium is located 4,637 feet above sea level, which should put a few UW players in labored breathing right away. Capacity is 45,807 and every seat stands to be filled. Interest is so high in Utah football that the university is considering adding 10,000 seats in the near future. Huskies coach Chris Petersen went so far as to suggest that this Pac-12 venue will be more difficult for his team to handle than facing Auburn in Atlanta, which is overstating it a tad. But it’ll be tough.
- Will the Huskies’ Ty Jones enjoy this trip to Utah?
The rangy sophomore wide receiver returns home to Salt Lake City where nearly four dozen friends and family members will be in the stands. This could go one of two ways: Jones either builds on the momentum he’s created to begin the season, catching two touchdown passes last week, or he tries to do too much to impress his neighborhood cronies and becomes a non-factor. The feeling here is he has his moment. More on that later.
- Contemplating the past history between these teams, should Washington have the upper hand?
After all, the Huskies have won 10 of 11 games against Utah, more success, percentage-wise, than against any other Pac-12 opponent. The answer: No. Utah, behind the disciplined direction of coach Kyle Willingham, has steadily improved its talent level and team speed since joining the conference in 2011 and the Utes have an upper-tier conference team.
- Who is Chase Hansen?
He might be the best defensive player on the field come Saturday night. Utah started him at safety before turning him into a linebacker this season to get even more out of him. He possesses enough speed and toughness to play both positions well. Hansen already has scored on an interception return this season. Huskies quarterback Jake Browning needs to know where this guy is at all times.
- Where will Mark Jones be on Saturday?
He certainly won’t be purring into a mike in Utah. The ESPN broadcaster no longer is permitted to cover Washington games after his unexplained Twitter snarkiness this season toward the Huskies and his cupcake charade last year over the UW schedule. What’s up with that anyway? Instead, Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Todd McShay will be in the booth, calling things straight up.
- Will Jake Browning have a breakout game?
He’s overdue. Washington’s four-year starting quarterback has been a little sloppy and inconsistent to begin the season, but he’s never been off the rails for too long in his career. He should be at his best.
- Do you know who or what the Red Iguana is?
No, it’s not the Utah mascot or a Utes special-team legend. We’ll take a culinary moment here: As far as Pac-12 eateries go, this place rates as one of the best in the league. Authentic Mexican food. Long line out the door. A place to celebrate or drown football sorrows. It’s right up there with the El Charro in Tucson, Ariz.
- Who wins this Saturday Night Special?
Try this scenario: Utah leads all game by either 3 or 6 points until the Huskies mount a late drive, much like last year’s game, and Browning sticks one into the end zone, where Jones makes an acrobatic catch. Washington 21, Utah 20.