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Here's the bout: Michigan's 6-foot-5, 230-pound Devin Funchess versus Utah's 5-foot-10, 170 pound Dominique Hatfield.

Funchess possesses virtually every physical advantage. Hatfield's edge is mental: He knows from film study that if Funchess breaks inside out of this formation, he'll run a slant or a post. At the snap, he runs the post.

Hatfield jumps the route and is in Funchess' back pocket. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner sees the tight coverage and is forced to check down. Utah's sophomore cornerback does everything right to win a one-snap battle against a physically superior opponent.

Most viewers probably didn't even notice that relatively anonymous part of a forgettable play. And really, that's what Utah's cornerbacks aim for: They're doing their best work if their contributions go unnoticed.

However, maintaining a low profile is going to get harder to come by as the 3-0 Utes open Pac-12 play Saturday against Washington State (1-2), the first in a steady diet of high-powered conference passing attacks.

"It's the most difficult position to play, it's the most demanding position to play, at least in our scheme," coach Kyle Whittingham said of Utah's corner spots. "It's very technical. If you don't have the quick feet, speed, the good hips, you're not going to survive there."

In other words, it's hard, and often thankless. But it may just be the key for the Utes, starting with Saturday's game against prolific Cougar quarterback Connor Halliday (1,901 yards, 16 TD passes). And Washington State is just the first of seven Pac-12 opponents ranked among the top 30 passing offenses in the country.

Teams have evolved a variety of ways to try to defend these offenses, but Utah's time-tested scheme stands apart: They trust their corners, for the most part, to simply win the one-on-one battles as the rest of the defense tries to knock around the quarterback. This has been the method at Utah for years, dating back to Whittingham's tenure as an assistant coach.

Utah plays at least seven receivers on the Biletnikoff award watch list in their remaining games. Many teams won't cover those wideouts in man coverage simply because it's too risky. But the gamble has its payoff: Trusting defensive backs to win one-on-one leaves more players available to blitz and attack the offense in other ways.

"As a defensive guy, you love man, because it creates such a hostile environment for the offense," cornerbacks coach Sharrief Shah said. "That's why the Seattle Seahawks are so good defensively, because they play the best man coverage in the [league]. It gives you so much more lattitude defensively."

Utah's two starting corners this season, Hatfield and Eric Rowe, reflect how the Utes don't just look for smooth hips and good footwork — although both those things are important. The two are both converts, new the position this year.

But look closer: Rowe brings a "wealth of experience and knowledge," according to Shah, and his biggest asset is he's seen everything an offense can throw at him. As a converted safety, he has size, is tough against the run, and can blitz from his spot. And his sense of timing — judging when the ball will arrive — has improved vastly since he switched in the spring.

Hatfield is the natural: The Utes knew he could play the position from high school, when he was the LA section defender of the year. What he gives up in size, he makes up for in physicality. His aggresiveness may be the single most important weapon he has, the biggest reason he's starting only a month after going to defense.

"Even though I'm small, I like to play like I'm big," he said. "They like to underestimate my physicality all the time. When I come out physical, when I come out talking, getting in their head, it's always a plus for me."

The bottom line has been set: The Utes need to make a bowl this year. To get there, they need to be able to slow down the passing attacks that have become a trademark of the Pac-12.

Saturday's game against WSU offers a litmus test: If the Utes do well, it's a promising sign for the rest of the year. If the secondary doesn't hold up, it could be another long slog through the rest of the conference season.

Still, if it's going to be a long battle, Shah said he thinks he's got the right guys in place.

"You just hope you can find guys you can coach, teach and prepare for the fight every week," he said. —

Washington State at Utah

O At Rice-Eccles Stadium

Kickoff • Saturday, 6 p.m.

TV • Pac-12 Network. Radio • 700 AM

Records • Utah (3-0); WSU (1-3)

Series history • Utah leads 7-6

Last meeting • Nov. 23, 2013 at WSU; WSU 49, Utah 37

About the Utes • Utah's 3-0 start is its first since 2010. ... The Utes are 0-3 in Pac-12 openers. ... Junior linebacker Gionni Paul was name Athlon Sports defensive player of the week in his debut against Michigan, and he and sophomore kicker Andy Phillips won Pac-12 defensive and special teams player of the week honors, respectively.

About the Cougars • Rank first in the nation in passing yards per game, with 498. ... Coming off a 38-31 loss to No. 2 Oregon in Pullman. ... Rank 126th in the nation in rushing yards per game, with 46. ... Backup quarterback Luke Falk is a Logan High graduate. —

Shah on his corners

Cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah talked at length about his starting corners and their individual strengths and weaknesses:

Senior Eric Rowe • "There's not a lot he hasn't seen. So even if you have him at a different position, he's a calming force for the inexperienced guys, or new guys who are new to a particular position, he gives them a level of confidence kind of as a very quiet captain. ... His strength is knowing what's happening. He can see things and dissect them very well. He's a phenomenal and ferocious blitzer. As a former safety, that's what we like to see."

Sophomore Dominique Hatfield: "[He] is just an absolute fighter. He knows he goes into every battle outmanned, undersized, he just feeds on it. He's been able to take the technique I've taught him and learn it so quickly. … It just made sense that we get someone with the aptitude and the skills to play cornerback in this league. He's learning. I'm pleased at what I see. Technique wise, he's got to work on some things. He wanders too much with his eyes, and his pad level is too high, and I'm constantly yelling at him."

Sophomore Justin Thomas: "Love Justin. Little big man, is what I call him. He gives you everything you want at the nickel position. … You have to have tremendously quick feet, fluid hips, you have be able to move and slide. Your ability to play with bigger receivers is always a daunting task. Justin is starting to put it all together and play at a really high level." —

Washington State at Utah

Saturday, 6 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Network