SALT LAKE CITY -- Mike Leach's first trip to Utah this year was a forgettable 24-point loss to Brigham Young in the season opener.
On Saturday, Leach and his Washington State "Air Raid" attack will be back, facing a good friend in Utah coach Kyle Whittingham as his Cougars continue searching for their first Pac-12 win.
The Utes (3-5, 1-4) secured theirs last week, using an inspired run game, playmaking defense and record-setting special teams effort to hammer California.
The Cougars (2-6, 0-5), meanwhile, gave No. 15 Stanford all it could handle, only to lose their fifth straight.
"If we can take a few teams down to the wire like that, a few are going to go our way," said Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel, who completed a school-record 43 passes in 60 attempts in the 24-17 loss at Stanford. "We really played as a team for the first time this year.”
While the Utes feel they have changed the momentum of their season and remain alive for a bowl berth, game-planning for Washington State is a task.
It helps that cornerback Ryan Lacy and Utah's secondary showed it is capable of defending one of the Pac-12's best receivers, limiting Cal's Keenan Allen to six catches -- and none when the game was still close.
On Saturday, Marquess Wilson will provide the next test. The 6-foot-3 junior leads the Cougars with nine plays of 25 yards or more this season and his nine catches at Stanford pushed his career total to 184.
"I love it," Lacy said of facing yet another top receiver, "because I love competition.”
Utah's pass defense ranks fourth in the Pac-12, but it has only three interceptions, a stark contrast to the 19 it had in 2011.
"(Pass breakups) are good, but interceptions are really going to get the momentum changed," said Lacy, who has two interceptions and four pass breakups.
With the ball in the air so many times this weekend, there certainly will be more opportunities for the Utes to do that.
Offensively, Utah hopes it has turned the corner by bringing offensive coordinator Brian Johnson down to the field to build a tighter working relationship with freshman quarterback Travis Wilson, who is making only his fourth start.
"It was just better having him there face to face," said Wilson, who has completed 62 of 95 passes for 646 yards, with four interceptions and two passing TDs. "I definitely feel like every game my confidence has gotten better.”
He'll need to be sound against a 3-4 defense that is tied for 25th in the nation with 21 sacks, ranks 15th with 59 tackles for loss and that held Stanford to a season-low 256 yards of offense.
It helps that Utah has streamlined its playbook.
"It's like getting back to fall camp where we get back to doing the things we own," said wide receiver Reggie Dunn, the hero last Saturday with his NCAA-record two 100-yard kickoff returns in the 49-27 win over Cal. "We're doing the things we do good instead of trying to pile on a lot of stuff.”
It also made a difference last week that John White looked more like the player who broke a 29-year-old school record with 1,519 yards rushing last year. He ran with more passion, broke tackles and finished runs in topping 100 yards -- significant in that Utah is 10-0 when White reaches that milestone.
Last year, White was the workhorse during a driving snowstorm in Pullman, carrying the ball 42 times as Utah pulled out a 30-27 overtime win against the Cougars. Depending on Kelvin York's health, White may need to carry the load again.
"Hopefully down the stretch he'll be able to give a lift to the team like he did last year," said Whittingham, who is coaching in his 100th game (69-30) and trying to secure Utah's 10th straight bowl bid.
He acknowledged in the midst of Utah's four-game losing streak that the jump to the Pac-12 has been "a process," one that continues.
Leach, despite all his success at Texas Tech, no doubt feels the same way after entering the season with high expectations.
"It's going to take time to build it his way," Whittingham said. "His offense is quite a bit different than what they were running, so it will take time to recruit guys to fit that scheme. He's a guy with a record of success. Given time, I think he'll achieve that again.”