Utah’s defense should make Washington nervous in Pac-12 showdown

Utah’s defense has given up 287 total yards in two games. It shut down a decent Northern Illinois team on the road last week, returning a fourth-quarter interception for a touchdown to cover the spread in a 17-6 victory.

Now the Utes get back to Rice-Eccles Stadium, which sits at 4,657 feet above sea level, for a Saturday night game against Pac-12 favorite Washington.

Utah’s offensive line continues to struggle, so the worry is that the Utes won’t score enough points to support an outstanding defense. Points will be at a premium for both teams in this matchup, where turnover margin may decide the outcome.

Utah is 12-6 against the spread in Pac-12 play the last two years. The Utes have covered as underdogs against the Huskies in each of the last three years, including an outright win in 2016 and a 33-30 loss at Washington last season.

Utah possesses arguably the best kicker-punter combo in the country in what I expect to be a one-possession game. I liked Utah better at plus 6½ earlier in the week, but if you can find plus 5½ and buy a half-point up to 6, I still like it. The line was 5½ at multiple Las Vegas sports books Friday afternoon.

Four more plays (home team in CAPS):

South Florida (-10½) over ILLINOIS: Fighting Illini coach Lovie Smith returns to Soldier Field, where the product won’t quite resemble his 2006 NFC champion Chicago Bears. Former Alabama five-star quarterback Blake Barnett has thrown five touchdowns in the Bulls’ 2-0 start and rushed for 91 yards in last week’s 49-38 win over Georgia Tech. South Florida beat Illinois 47-23 last year. Illinois starting quarterback AJ Bush (leg) is questionable and backup Cam Thomas left the team. Two Illini receivers are out for the season and four key players are suspended, including their starting tight end and two starting defensive backs.

North Texas (+7) over ARKANSAS: Arkansas’ offensive line is in shambles and its overall talent is not up to Southeastern Conference standards. The Razorbacks blew a 27-9 second-half lead last week in a 34-27 loss to Colorado State as K.J. Carta-Samuels passed for 389 yards. North Texas quarterback Mason Fine threw for more than 4,000 yards last year and could light up the Arkansas secondary. The Razorbacks are on a 5-9 spread skid as home favorites and are in a lookahead spot, with a road game at Auburn up next.

NOTRE DAME (-13) over Vanderbilt: The Fighting Irish fell asleep at the wheel against Ball State, winning by eight as a 34½-point favorite. That was a hangover game after beating Michigan. Vanderbilt (2-0) outscored opponents 98-20 in a 3-0 start last year before losing 59-0 to Alabama. I still don’t trust the Commodores’ run defense, which allowed 198.5 yards per game last season.

NEW MEXICO STATE (+4) over New Mexico: New Mexico State (0-3) is not the same team that won a bowl game last year. But the Aggies returned nine defensive starters. New Mexico starting quarterback Tevaka Tuioti is out (concussion), leaving Sheriron Jones, its No. 3 QB to start the season, as the starter. New Mexico State is 5-4 in the last nine meetings with the Lobos and has covered the last four.

Last week: 2-3 against the spread.

Season: 4-6.

More betting: Follow all of our sports betting coverage online at reviewjournal.com/betting and @RJ_Sports on Twitter.

Christopher Smith of AL.com, NOLA.com and MyBookie is providing college football analysis for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Follow @cfblocksmith on Twitter.

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