Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is pleased that the 14th-ranked Utes will return to action earlier than normal this week when they visit Washington State on Thursday.

The Utes had a bye last week following a 43-42 home win over then-No. 7 Southern California on Oct. 15.

“I think this is the ideal scenario, if you have a bye, to have it come (ahead of) a Thursday (game) so you get an extra couple of days the following week,” Whittingham said. “I think sometimes you can get a little stale going the full two weeks, so I think if you were to map it out, this is exactly how we would want it to play out.”

Washington State is in the same situation, having last played Oct. 15 at Oregon State, a 24-10 loss.

The Utes (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) need to keep winning to keep pace with No. 8 Oregon (6-1, 4-0) in the Pac-12 standings. Those teams play will meet in Eugene, Ore., on Nov. 19.

Washington State (4-3, 1-3) is hoping to end its two-game losing streak, with both losses coming on the road against USC and Oregon State.

The Cougars are 3-1 at home. Utah is 1-2 on the road.

Washington State’s focus preparing for the Utes is improving protection for quarterback Cameron Ward.

The Cougars have allowed 26 sacks, which has contributed to the team being ranked last in the Pac-12 in rushing yardage (89.4 yards per game).

“We need to protect (Ward) the right way so we can get through our progressions and ultimately eliminate these negative plays,” Washington State coach Jake Dickert said. “We have some momentum (in games), then we can’t overcome these negative plays within a series.

“That’s been the story of the three-and-outs, that’s been the story of not sustaining drives.”

Utah is traditionally strong against the run, but the Utes rank just seventh in the Pac-12 in that category, allowing 142 yards a game. They finished atop the conference last season, giving up 122.5 rushing yards per game.

Utah’s pass defense tops the Pac-12 (208.1 yards a game allowed), elevating the overall defense ranking to first in the conference (350.1 total yards yielded per game).

“When we have had issues, it’s primarily run defense this season,” Whittingham said. “That’s been a concern through the first half of the season.”

The matchup with the Cougars could very well be a defensive battle.

Washington State ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (20.7 points allowed a game).

The Cougars are led by linebacker Daiyan Henley, a transfer from Nevada who ranks second in the Pac-12 with 11 tackles for loss.

Ward has passed for 1,962 yards (completing 175 of 277 pass attempts) through seven games after accumulating 4,648 yards in 13 games last season at Incarnate Word.

He has led an efficient Washington State offense in the red zone, with the Cougars scoring on 92.3 percent of their red-zone opportunities.

Their scoring offense, however, ranks 10th in the Pac-12 at 24.6 points per game.

“When we get in the red zone, we’re really efficient,” Dickert said. “We just stall out before we get there. That has been an emphasis (during the bye week).”

–Field Level Media