Key Matchup: Utah Must Find Continued Success On The Ground

Freshman Ty Jordan has broken out the past two weeks, averaging 157 yards per game. But now he's about to face his toughest test of the season going up Washington State, the Pac-12's No. 2 rush defense

It's no coincidence that in Utah's only two victories this season, the running game has really taken off. 

After averaging 163 yards per game in the two losses, the Utes offensive line has really come together to shine the past two games. They've been the driving force for Utah averaging 210.5 rushing yards per game — and allowing for the emergence of freshman running back Ty Jordan, the nation's leading rusher amongst freshmen.

But Jordan and the Utes will face their stiffest test of the season on Saturday when they go up against Washington State, the Pac-12's No. 2-ranked rush defense. Kickoff is set for 11:30 a.m. MT from Rice-Eccles Stadium, and will be broadcast on FS1.

Utah's success running the ball has been well documented ever since the Utes joined the Pac-12 to begin the 2011 season. Led by talented runners Joe Williams, Devontae Booker and most recently Zack Moss, Utah typically finishes amongst the top teams in the conference in rushing.

This year though, there was serious doubt as to whether or not the Utes could keep up that tradition of being a power-running team with the departure of Moss to the NFL. It may have taken until the third game of the season but the Utes have no found their featured back for the next 3-4 years in the freshman Jordan.

On the season, Jordan has ran for 433 yards and three touchdowns on just 61 carries. He's averaging 157 rushing yards per game on 7.14 yards per carry over the past two games, earning him back-to-back Pac-12 freshman player of the week recognition. 

"He's starting to separate himself even more. He's been our top guy and now he's getting more and more separation. ... But, Jordan by what you have evidenced tonight, is our number one back," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said postgame against Oregon State. "He's getting used to speed of the Power 5 game. Things move fast in all lanes at the Power 5 level. He has gotten used to that. Now he has some confidence as well. One thing we need to do more is throw him the ball."

With Jordan taking over that feature-back roll, it prompted the the untimely transfers of backup running backs Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore on Monday, the top two returning rushers from last season. Utah's depth took a massive hit with those two leaving, as redshirt freshman Micah Bernard now officially steps into the backup role.

Bernard has just 12 carries for 61 yards on the season, but had his best game of the season last week against Colorado when he tallied a career-high five carries. Quarterback Jake Bentley is also a threat running the ball, totaling 31 carries for 100 yards and a touchdown on the season. Not a burner in anyway, Bentley is agile enough to extend drives rather than break off game-changing plays.

Dec 12, 2020; Boulder, Colorado, USA; Utah Utes quarterback Jake Bentley (8) hands the ball off to running back Micah Bernard (3) in the third quarter against the Colorado Buffaloes at Folsom Field.

With the offensive line continuing to gel together and make strides in the run game, the Utes were able to impose their will against Colorado in the second half last week when they ran for 145 yards. They must be able to do the same thing on Saturday against the Cougars.

While Utah has found its groove running the ball, the Cougars have been successful in defending it all season long — for the most part.

Oregon, who averages 189.2 rushing yards per game went off for a season-high 269 yards against Washington State in their meeting early in the season. 

But apart from that outlier, the Cougars held Oregon State's Jermar Jefferson, the nation's No. 4 rusher, to 120 yards, more than 30 yards below his season average. They then dominated USC two weeks ago, holding them to just five yards on 20 carries.

What makes the Cougars difficult to run against is that they aren't blessed with a true star in the front seven, somebody who opposing offenses have to gameplan against. Instead, Washington State is armed with a multitude of players who all understand their roles and do it well. 

Sophomore defensive end Brennan Jackson ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss per game at 1.17 (3.5 on the year).

Nov 7, 2020; Corvallis, Oregon, USA; Washington State Cougars defensive end Brennan Jackson (80) celebrates with Dillon Sherman (41) and Will Rodgers III (92) after sacking Oregon State Beavers quarterback Tristan Gebbia (3) during the first half at Reser Stadium.

Washington State does a very good job of understanding gap control, forcing opposing ball carries to go where the Cougars want them to go. This allows linebackers such as Jahad Woods to pick up the pieces and come throw the line of scrimmage untouched to make the tackle.

The Cougars will need to stay disciplined against Utah's power-running game if it wants any chance of containing Jordan and the rest of the Utes.

Each team is coming off dominating performances in their most recent games, but it appears that the Utes will have the edge. 

The Cougars were decimated by Oregon's CJ Verdell, a small yet powerful back who gets downhill fast. That's very reminiscent of what Jordan likes to do, and when behind a Utah offensive line that's improving every single game, it's very well could be a career-day for the freshman.

Look for Utah to establish the running game early and often, setting up play action passes to stars Britain Covey and Blake Kuithe. Washington will stack the box against the Utes but if Jordan/Bernard can get into that second level, they each have the speed and physicality to outrace the Cougars to the promised land.

Nov 28, 2020; Seattle, Washington, USA; Utah Utes running back Ty Jordan (22) rushes against Washington Huskies linebacker Jackson Sirmon (43) and linebacker Sav'ell Smalls (17) during the first quarter at Alaska Airlines Field at Husky Stadium.

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