SPOKANE, Wash. -- Freshman quarterback Connor Halliday will get his first start today as Washington State faces Utah in its quest to become bowl eligible. Utah needs to win both its remaining games to have a chance to win the Pac-12 South title.
Halliday, who came off the bench to throw for 494 yards and four touchdowns in the Cougars' upset of Arizona State last weekend, will be facing one of the Pac-12's top pass defenses.
"In terms of raw talent, this is the best defense we have seen, along with Cal," coach Paul Wulff said.
Utah's Star Lotulelei is "the best defensive tackle we've seen," Wulff said. The Utes also lead the Pac-12 in interceptions.
There's a question about how Halliday will respond to the pressure of being the starter, Wulff said. It can be easier to come off the bench than to carry the expectations of the team on your back all week, he said.
"We're hoping Connor can handle that," Wulff said.
Washington State (4-6, 2-5) needs to win its final two games to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2006.
Washington State's high-powered passing attack might be hampered because the weather forecast calls for subfreezing temperatures. But Halliday is aided by one of the league's top receiving corps.
Last week, Marquess Wilson caught eight passes for 223 yards, giving him a team record 1,197 yards receiving this season with two games left. Isiah Barton added 155 yards on seven receptions, while Jared Karstetter caught six for 63 yards.
"He's not afraid to put the ball out there and let his receivers have a chance to make a play," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of Halliday. "He seems to be in the same mold as all the other great quarterbacks in this league."
Utah (6-4, 3-4) leads the league in scoring defense (19 points per game) and ranks among the leaders in several other defensive categories. The Utes have been particularly good against the run, which could put more pressure on WSU's passing game.
Utah has won four of its past five games and three in a row after a disappointing start to become bowl eligible for a ninth consecutive season.
The winning streak began after Whittingham held a meeting with his juniors and seniors after a loss to Cal.
"We just had a heart to heart," he said. "We did not play with any passion or emotion (against Cal). We were flat and that's my job."
After starting quarterback Jordan Wynn went down with a shoulder injury, Utah turned to running back John White for much of its offensive production. The Utes are 6-0 in games where White has rushed for 100 yards or more.
White rushed for 167 yards and scored three touchdowns in last weekend's 31-6 win over UCLA. He leads the Pac-12 with 14 total touchdowns.
White, who has rushed for 1,191 yards this season, is closing in on Carl Monroe's team record of 1,507 yards. Offensive lineman John Cullen would like to see him break the mark.
"As an offensive lineman, you take pride in how many yards your backs get and how well you can open up holes," Cullen said. "If we can break a record like that, coming off the way we played early in the season, to turn it around like this, that's going to be great."
Utah's passing attack ranks last in the Pac-12. Jon Hays has thrown for 958 yards in six games, with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions.
"He has certainly become better with his decision-making, and has pulled the ball down or thrown it away when there is nothing there," Whittingham said.
The all-time series with Washington State is tied 5-5. Washington State won the most recent contest in 2000 in Salt Lake City.
But Utah is used to playing a team known as the Cougars on Nov. 19, the traditional date for the Utes' game with rival Brigham Young. This is the first time since 1977 that Utah has played an opponent other than Brigham Young on Nov. 19.