Utah at Arizona - Game Preview

The Utah Utes hit south to take on the Arizona Wildcats in Tuscon.

Facts and Factors:
Utah (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) plays at Arizona (2-6, 1-5 Pac-12) on Saturday, Nov. 5 in Tucson, Ariz. Kickoff is 4 p.m. MST (5 p.m. MDT) in Arizona Stadium. Saturday will be Arizona's homecoming game.

The first regular-season win of Kyle Whittingham's career came in the 2005 season opener against Arizona (27-24 in Salt Lake City).

Utah last visited Tucson in 2004, beating the Wildcats 23-6. Utah leads the all-time series with Arizona 19-15-2 and the series is tied 8-8-2 in Tucson. The Utes two in a row against Arizona, and have won three of the last five matchups.

Utah and Arizona have played three common opponents this season. Utah is 1-2 against them, with a win over Oregon State (27-8) and losses to USC (23-14) and Washington (31-14). Arizona is 0-3 against the trio, with losses to USC (48-41), Oregon State (37-27) and Washington (42-31).

When Utah has the ball:
Utah's offense enters Saturday's game hoping that they have found their new identity. Last week against Oregon State, Utah's offense had their best showing of the season (in conference play), producing 27 points. On the season, Utah has averaged just under 16 points per game in conference. Against Oregon State, Utah rushed the ball on 76% of offensive plays from scrimmage.

Arizona's defense has faced a lot of difficult opponents this season, and have not held up well. Faced with injuries and a lack of depth, Arizona is allowing 34.9 points per game to opponents (ranked 109th in FBS). The wildcats rank dead last in the PAC-12 in total defense, and last in sacks. Arizona's best defensive effort came in a blowout win vs. UCLA. The Wildcats stacked the box and committed to stopping the run, and UCLA failed to develop any sort of passing game.

For the Utes, Jon Hays will take the field as the Ute signal caller. Hays has completed 55% of his passes on the season, and is averaging just 6.5 yards per attempt. The key for Hays and Utes remains ball control. In losses, Hays has thrown an average of 3 interceptions per game. In wins, Hays has not thrown an interception.

At Running Back, Utah has leaned heavily on John White IV, and White has proven capable of a heavy work load. White has run for 915 yards on the season (114 yards per game, ranked 15th in nation). White has rushed for 8 touchdowns, and caught 1 through the air. In both of the Utes' last two wins, White has carried the ball over 35 times per game. Last week vs. Oregon State, White rushed for a career high 205 yards.

Though Utah will likely look to keep the ball on the ground Saturday, the offense will certainly benefit by having Devonte Christopher back on the field. Christopher is one of the few big play threats still available for the Utes. Freshmen Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott continue to show flashes of promise, but have struggled with consistency this season. Utah's ability to get the ball to their receivers may prove critical as defenses load the box in attempt to stop Utah's running game. At Tight End, Kendrick Moeai is expected to get the start and will share time with freshman TE Jake Murphy.

On the Offensive Line, Utah took another hit last week when they lost starting OG Latu Heimuli to a season ending foot injury during warm-ups. The unit has been wildly inconsistent for the Utes, and seems to be 1 or 2 players short of what is needed. Utah ranks 103rd in the nation in sacks allowed, and have struggled to provide much protection to Hays. Senior OT Tony Bergstrom is coming off of his best game of the season, in which he won 91% of plays against Oregon State. Senior OT John Cullen also recorded a season high grade by winning 86% of plays, and showing improved discipline on the field. At guard, Sam Brenner finished with a grade of 82% as did center Tevita Stevens. Junior College transfer Miles Mason had a rough game vs. Oregon State, winning just 69% of plays, and also suffering a mild injury. Vyncent Jones filled in admirably. While Mason is expected to start, the junior has struggled as the season has progressed, and the left guard position is certainly a position of concern for the Utes.

For the Wildcats, their defensive ends are the leaders of the defense. Seniors C.J. Parish and Mohammed Usman provide some form of stability on a defense that has needed consistency. The duo have combined for 3 sacks on the season. On the inside, Justin Washington and Sione Tuihalamaka haven't held up great for the Wildcats. As a team, Arizona has allowed 174 rushing yards per game on the season.

At linebacker, Arizona is extremely thin, and has experienced a lot of turnover. Senior leads the team in tackles with 53 stops on the season, and is a team leader on defense. True Freshman Tra'Mayne Bondurant has been forced into a starting position, and will be the 3rd Wildcat to start at the position this season. Combined, Saturday's starting linebackers have accumulated 2 sacks on the year, 0 interceptions, 0 forced fumbles, and had only a handful of pass breakups.

In the secondary, Arizona is stronger in the middle of the field than on the outside. Senior Safety Robert Golden is Arizona's best defensive player, and one of the better safeties in the conference. Next to Golden is Marquis Flowers, a young sophomore with loads of potential. Out the outside, Sophomore Shaquille Richardson will likely draw Christopher most of the night, and will challenge Ute QB Jon Hays to make throws down the field. Like most young players, Richardson has had good games and bad games. Without a real threat at QB, Richardson should do well in his matchup on Christopher. Senior CB Trevin Wade will start opposite of Richardson, and should be able to use his experience to anticipate Hays' decisions. If Arizona's secondary is able to effectively defend Utah's receivers, the Utes will struggle to put points on the board.

When Arizona has the ball:
Arizona should feel very comfortable about their offensive outlook on Saturday. With Senior QB Nick Foles at the healm, the Wildcats have the 3rd highest passing offense in the country (375.6 yards per game). This season, the wildcats have been a very pass heavy team, throwing the ball on 64% of offensive plays from scrimmage. Expectedly, the running game has suffered as a result, producing just 90 rushing yards per game (ranking 113th in the nation).

Utah's defense continues to gain confidence as they are proving to be one of the best units in the PAC-12. Utah ranks 11th in the nation in rush defense, and 2nd in conference. The Utes rank 24th in pass efficiency defense, and 2nd in the conference as well. Utah ranks 1st in the PAC-12 in total defense, and 22nd in the country. Ultimately, this group hangs their hats on stopping the run…which should not be an issue on Saturday as Arizona almost prefers not to run at all. The key for Utah will be their ability to apply pressure to Foles, failure to do so would allow Foles to pick apart Utah's secondary.

Nick Foles (6'5, 240) entered this season with high expectations placed on his shoulders. The senior has lived up to those expectations in a big way. Foles has passed for a remarkable 2934 yards this season (367 yards per game) with 20 touchdowns, and a career best passer rating of 150.1. Foles entered this season with the potential to become a first round draft pick at QB, and that appears to still be a possibility.

At wide receiver, Foles has one of the premiere talents in the PAC-12 in Senior Juron Criner (6'4, 215). Criner is 70 receiving yards per game, and ranks 21st in the nation with nearly 7 receptions per game. Criner missed most of the summer while attending to personal issues, but still remains one of the more explosive receivers in the conference. The wildcats will miss Buckner, but should still have enough weapons to challenge the Ute secondary. Gino Crump, David Roberts, and David Douglas should all see plenty of playing time.

At Running Back, Arizona will use 2 wide receivers; Keola Antolin and Ka'deem Carey. Antolin has averaged over 5 yards per carry on the season, but gets just 10 carries per game. Carey will get fewer carries than Antolin, and has averaged 4.2 yards per carry. As a group, these RBs will also produce about 3 receptions per game.

The Arizona Offensive Line has underperformed entirely this season. This thin group of undersized lineman have lacked the size to create holes for wildcat Running Backs to attack. At one point this fall, Arizona experimented with Tight End Jack Baucus at Offensive Tackle. Jack's brother Mickey is Arizona's most capable lineman, and starts at left tackle. At 6'8, 300 lbs, Baucus should have the range to cover any speed rush from Utah's defensive ends.

Utah's defensive line continues to surprise opponents with their physical mentality and ability to stop the run. Led by Defensive Tackle Star Lotulelei, this group will go to great lengths to force opponents into one-dimensional passing teams. Against Oregon State, the Utes allowed just 1.3 yards per rush, ultimately causing the Beavers to abandon the run game and pass the ball 49 times. Dave Kruger and James Aiono have been serviceable, while Tevita Finau continues to earn more minutes as well as a reputation for getting to the QB. Finau had 3 sacks against Oregon State.

At Linebacker, Utah has been extremely efficient as long as they don't have to stay on the field too long. Chaz Walker leads the Utes in tackles with 69 stops on the season, and has been best in run situations. Converted defensive end Trevor Reilly has been the big play guy for Utah's defense, collecting 5 sacks on the season, 9 tackles for loss, and 4 forced fumbles. Reilly will get even more reps this week as Utah lost Senior LB J.J. Williams to a season-ending (and career-ending) foot injury. Williams was a key member of Utah's rotation at linebacker. Matt Martinez has continued to improve on the season, collecting 2.5 sacks, 45 tackles, and 5.5 tackles for loss. The big question for the Utah linebackers will be how the reserves step in and play. Freshmen V.J. Fehoko and Jacoby Hale now fill reserve roles, while Junior David Fagergren will rotate in behind Reilly.

In the secondary, Utah seems to have found a group they are comfortable with. True Freshman Eric Rowe is developing rapidly at Free Safety, and clearly has a bright future ahead of him. Converted LB Brian Blechen has returned to his familiar Strong Safety position and suddenly has seen his name called much more frequently. On the outside, Senior CB Conroy Black will have a very tough task once again, as he tries to limit the receptions to the huge and athletic Juron Criner. Black has become extremely reliable for the Utes, as is manifest by how infrequently his name has been called this season. Opposing QBs have been content to throw the other way. Junior CB Mo Lee has come on strong of late, and has taken over the starting CB position from Junior Ryan Lacy. Lacy will still play a big role on Saturday, as the utes expect to see multiple wide receiver sets, and Lacy will be on the field in every nickel and dime situation.

Special Teams:
At kicker, the Utes entered the season without much confidence in any of their options. Coleman Peterson ultimately won the starting job, and struggled early in the season. Peterson has gone 7/7 on FG attempts since the BYU game. On kickoffs, Nick Marsh continues to kick the ball well, pinning opponents deep in their own territory. At punter, Marsh has split time with Sean Sellwood, and the situational duo have underperformed this season. Sellwood is averaging 42.7 yards per punt.

For Arizona, Kyle Dugandzic has been arguably the best punter in the PAC-12, and one of the best in America. Dugandzic is averaging 46 yards per punt. At kicker, Arizona had a revolving group and has seemingly fixated on John Bonano.

At kick returner, Reggie Dunn has started to emerge for the Utes as the type of big play threat they had envisioned entering the season. Dunn is averaging a respectable 24.9 yards per kick return on the season. True Freshman Quentin Pedroza has taken a hold of the other returner position, but has not yet returned a kick this season. Griff McNabb remains the sure-handed option at punt returner.

The wildcats have a reliable duo in KaDeem Carey and Garic Wharton. Both wildcats average 22 yards per kick return, with longs of 39 and 44 respectably. Both Carey and Wharton have had many chances to return kicks this season, as their defense has allowed a lot of scoring opportunities.

Intangibles:
The injuries are stacking up now for Utah. Starters Jordan Wynn (QB), Dallin Rogers (TE), Latu Heimuli (OG) and reserves Charles Henderson (WR/PR), J J Williams (LB) and Keith McGill (S) will be out for the remainder of the season. Many other Utes have been dinged up this season but are playing through the pain of their injuries.

Weather forecasts for Saturday predict beautiful weather (for Utahns) with a high of 64 degrees, and a low of 42.

Arizona has faced the 4th most difficult schedule in America thus far this season, and is coming off of a tough loss at the hands of Washington. Arizona is 1-1 since firing Coach Stoops, and have been riding a bit of emotional energy for the past couple of games.

Prediction:
Utah 17, Arizona 24

Utah's defense will perform well on Saturday, holding Foles and the explosive Wildcat offense well under their season averages. However Utah's offense may not be able to produce enough points to give Utah the victory. Ultimately Arizona will stack the box on defense, forcing Hays to throw the ball. While I don't expect a horrid performance from Hays, he won't be productive enough to out-gun Foles.

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