Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City has cultivated a modest reputation in recent years as a venue where opponents’ dreams are shattered: Stanford’s national title hopes in 2013, USC’s pursuit of a conference championship in 2014, blue-blood Michigan in its debut with Jim Harbaugh in 2015.
No. 10-ranked Washington (1-1) avoided a similar fate on its road to the College Football Playoff in 2016, and the Huskies again seek to leave its matchup against Utah on Saturday unscathed.
Their last visit to Utah ended in a 31-24 Washington victory, sealed when the Huskies’ defense made a fourth-down stop at their own 26-yard line. The trip marked Washington’s first to Rice-Eccels under coach Chris Petersen, who left with an appreciation for the rowdy atmosphere.
“It’s as good as anywhere we’ve been. It’s how college football should be,” Petersen said. “It’ll be a packed house. Those night games – any time you’re on the road in a night game and a packed stadium, it’s a really energized environment.”
The arrival of a top 10 opponent should only serve to further energize the home crowd, as Utah (2-0) — the first team out of the Associated Press Top 25 in Others Receiving Votes this week — aim to put a signature win on its resume.
The Utes played Washington close each of the past two seasons, but followed up the seven-point loss in 2016 with an even more competitive defeat last November in Seattle.
Utah led the 2017 meeting by a touchdown with less than two minutes remaining. A Myles Gaskin touchdown run, a quick Utes punt and pair of long Jake Browning pass completions after an aggressive Utah timeout set up Washington’s game-winning, last-second field goal in the Huskies’ 33-30 victory.
“We’ve got to find a way to get over that hump,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, adding that doing so is a challenge. “They’re a heck of a football team. You look at them on tape, and they don’t have any weaknesses.”
Whittingham is the second opposing coach in as many weeks to invoke the phrase “don’t have any weaknesses,” echoing the sentiment that made Washington a common preseason pick to return to the College Football Playoff.
However, through two games – including a tight, Week 1 loss to Auburn – Washington is aiming to strengthen its offense.
Red-zone misfires against Auburn cost the Huskies in a game where the defense shined. They returned home last week to put up 45 points against North Dakota, but Browning threw a pair of interceptions in the blowout win.
“I don’t feel like we dominated at any point,” Browning said in the postgame press conference. “We have a standard of play and we didn’t play to it. I don’t feel like I played to my standard.”
With an end-of-game interception against Auburn, and the two against North Dakota, Browning enters Saturday’s Pac-12 Conference opener with as many picks thrown this season as touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Utah is coming off a win in which its typically stout defense sealed the victory on an interception.
Linebacker Chase Hansen’s 40-yard pick-six elevated Utah past Northern Illinois 17-6, despite the Utes’ own struggles to maintain rhythm offensively. Running back Zack Moss scored Utah’s only offensive touchdown, and quarterback Tyler Huntley threw for 286 yards without an interception. But five possessions in Northern Illinois territory producing zero points looms as a concern.
“We’ve had a hard time getting on track,” Whittingham said. “We’re not very efficient; didn’t finish drives … The name of the game is scoring points. If you don’t put the ball in the end zone, you’re going to struggle.”
Finishing offensive possessions is a common thread. Washington’s 41.7 touchdown percentage on red-zone opportunities ranks the Huskies No. 115 in the nation.
On Saturday, a sea of black in the Rice-Eccles stands will do its part to vex Washington when it’s in the red zone. A black-out of the stadium is planned to set the theme for the nighttime kick and upset bid.
The memories of a hard-fought win at Utah two years ago may have faded for the Huskies, but opening 2018 in hostile conditions against Auburn offers some familiarity for what awaits.
“It’s probably better we were in that loud environment, (against) a real physical opponent,” Petersen said.