SALT LAKE CITY -- Hope never seemed as high for the 2012 Washington State Cougars as the last time they flew into this city's airport.
They were here the last week of August to play their season opener at Brigham Young, a game WSU lost 30-6, immediately quelling a good amount of excitement about the potential of the Cougars' new Air Raid offense.
Eight games into the season, WSU (2-6, 0-5 Pac-12) is still trying to get it going. A noon game here against Utah (3-5, 1-4 Pac-12) today provides the Cougars a chance to build on a promising performance last week in a tight loss to Stanford. A win is needed today to preserve WSU's ever-slim bowl hopes.
"We're improving," coach Mike Leach said. "BYU kind of set where we're at, which was not very good."
The Cougars have improved, and can stack some more evidence that they are, indeed, improving by beating a Utes team that hasn't been as tough this season as many predicted.
Utah usually wins at home -- 3-1 so far this season -- but its offense has fizzled somewhat without injured starting quarterback Jordan Wynn, so the Cougars are preparing for another slugfest, similar to last week's defensive struggle against Stanford.
"They're a good, physical defense, like they were last year," quarterback Jeff Tuel said.
Expect WSU to throw about as much as it did against the Cardinal. The Cougars attempted 61 passes in that game, as Tuel completed 43 of them for a career-high 401 yards.
Stanford used 10 sacks to hold the Cougars to minus-16 rushing yards. Utah isn't quite as stout against the run, but the Utes rank 23rd nationally in rush defense, led by future NFL defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.
"Them and Stanford are kind of the class of the league on that," Leach said. "Their thing is they play with one safety a lot and try to outnumber you."
Physical as they might be on defense, the Utes haven't been able to push many teams around on the other side of the ball. Running back John White is talented, but he's averaged just 4 yards per carry this season and has only three touchdowns in 131 carries.
Utah isn't quite as ground-and-pound as Stanford, defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. The Utes use more fly sweep and three-receiver sets. But with freshman quarterback Travis Wilson at the helm, they're likely to run more than pass.
So WSU's goal is similar to its last two games against Cal and Stanford -- stop the run, make the quarterback beat you, then try to score against a pretty tough defensive front.
One positive for the Cougars -- the Utes' pass defense has been prone to the same kind of "explosive" plays that have plagued WSU.
For Tuel and a group of receivers showing signs of improvement, this week could be another step forward.