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Game Matchups: Utah Defense vs. Zone Offense

James Durrant breaks down the key matchups against the Wildcats when Utah's defense and special teams are on the field

Arizona Offense

Arizona is difficult to scout on offense simply due to the number of injuries they have to deal with on that side of the ball. Eight of the 11 players on the injury report play offense, and that doesn’t include RB J.J. Taylor (out indefinitely with a broken ankle) and RB Orlando Bradford (dismissed from the team), who were productive earlier in the season, as well as TE Brion Anduze (knee injury in the spring) and OL Keenan Walker (suspended indefinitely).

The biggest injury losses are at quarterback and running back, arguably the most important positions for the Wildcat offense. Arizona wants to run the football, and they run the ball with a fairly complex scheme that places a tremendous amount of decision-making burden on the quarterback and the running back. The run game is based around the zone-read and inside zone, though they will also run a lot of run-pass options as well as different power and sweeps plays for both the quarterback and running back. Despite all the injuries, Arizona is averaging 246.8 rushing yards per game and 5.8 yards per carry. 

Nick Wilson is Arizona’s best and most experienced running back, but he has dealt with an ankle injury for several weeks and missed most of the UCLA game after re-injuring the ankle. Wilson is listed as questionable for the game against Utah, but that would leave Arizona with Zach Green as the only scholarship running back available for the game. Slot receiver Tyrell Johnson took over for Wilson against UCLA, and would likely be the feature back against the Utes. He carried the ball 16 times for 77 yards against the Bruins. Johnson has great speed in the open field, though he needs to do a better job of protecting the football. Green is more of a fullback, and at 227 pounds is good between the tackles and in short-yardage situations. If Arizona has to go deeper than Johnson and Green, walk-on Branden Leon would be the third back, though receiver Samajie Grant could also play running back.

It is unlikely that either Brandon Dawkins or Anu Solomon will play against Utah, leaving true freshman Khalil Tate and sophomore Zach Werlinger as the options at quarterback. Tate earned the chance to start against Utah with his performance against UCLA, carrying the ball 15 times for 79 yards as well as completing 5 of 9 passes for 72 yards and 2 touchdowns, all in the second half. Tate isn’t particularly big at 212 pounds, but he runs like a 230-pounds fullback. He runs with great leverage and will run through defenders. He has enough quickness to make defenders miss and has good speed. As a passer, Tate is raw and inaccurate, though at times he will put a ball right where it needs to be. He is confident in his abilities, though he needs to work on his reads and patience in the option game, as well as his overall passing game. He showed no ability to go through progressions and would take off and run if the initial read wasn’t there. When he runs, he does have a tendency to carry the football away from his body which could lead to fumbles, though he generally did a good job of tucking it in tight when contact was imminent. Werlinger did not look good at all against UCLA, netting -4 yards on the ground and he did not complete any of his pass attempts.

Helping out Tate in the passing game is a solid group of receivers. Trey Griffey is the best of the bunch and will draw a considerable amount of attention from defenses. He is an all-conference caliber talent with size, speed, and outstanding body control. He has caught 12 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown. Slot receiver Shun Brown leads the team with 263 yards and 2 touchdowns on 17 catches. Nate Phillips is a reliable option as a fourth receiver, catching 14 passes for 122 yards from the slot. Grant starts outside opposite Griffey and can play any receiver position, contributing 142 yards and a touchdown on 12 catches. Johnson (5 catches, 42 yards) and Cam Denson (4 catches, 35 yards, 1 touchdown) round out the receiver group. Denson has terrific speed and quickness.

Injuries have also hit hard up front, with three linemen on the injury report. Left guard Freddie Tagaloa is unlikely to play. Christian Boettcher will take Tagaloa’s spot. For the most part, Boettcher played well against UCLA. He is a bit undersized at 6-foot-2 and 285 pounds, but he moves well, can lead and pull, and does a good job working with either the center or the left tackle in the zone blocking schemes. He doesn’t have great strength and struggles when left one-on-one.  Right tackle Gerhard de Beer could play against Utah after missing most of the UCLA game with an ankle injury. How well he can play with a bad ankle will be something to keep an eye on, as when healthy he had issues with speed rushers and a bad ankle could impact his ability to drive and get a push in the run game. Cody Creason did a solid job replacing de Beer, though he had trouble picking up and adjusting to blitzes and stunts/twists from the defense. Right guard Jacob Alsadek has been playing through a right shoulder injury. He has a hard time using his right arm much and has no strength with that side of his body. For the most part he has been able to move his feet and keep his injury from impacting plays. Boettcher is the listed backup for Alsadek, though Arizona could play backup center Levi Walton at guard.

Center Nathan Eldridge is an above-average player, with quick, accurate and consistent snaps to the quarterback. He works well with the guards in both the zone running game and pass protection. He lacks ideal strength and struggles when having to block a defensive lineman one-on-one. He does a good job of diagnosing defensive fronts and generally puts the line the proper protections. Left tackle Layth Freikh earns the highest compliment an offensive lineman can get: he doesn’t really get noticed during plays, and neither does his defender. He moves well, uses his hands well, and can really get to the second level of the defense. He struggles a bit with size and strength, but has been a solid overall player to this point of the season.

Utah Defense

The Utes lost the track meet against Cal, giving up 306 passing yards at 13.9 yards per catch; 8 of the 22 completions went for 20 or more yards. Utah will again face off against a fast group of receivers, though the Arizona offense doesn’t rely on the big pass play. Instead, the Utes will have to find a way to stop an Arizona rushing attack that has owned the Utes, with the Wildcats rushing for an average of 269 yards per game at 5.8 yards per carry since 2012. Utah did play the run better last season, holding the Wildcats to 158 yards, 4.6 yards per carry and a touchdown on the ground.

Utah’s run defense has struggled against good rushing teams this season, as BYU and USC combined to run for 359 yards and 4 touchdowns while averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Utah will need standout performances from the line and linebackers to slow down the Wildcats.

Up front, Utah has also been hit by the injury bug. Lowell Lotulelei is expected to play against Arizona after missing most of the USC game and the game against Cal, but how much he plays and how effective he will he remains to be seen. Lotulelei is a big piece of the run defense as he requires a double-team, and he has the ability to beat those double-team blocks. Pasoni Tasini filled in well for Lotulelei, but he can struggle to take on double-teams which causes problems at the second level of the defense. Filipo Mokofisi continues to play both tackle and end, and excelling at both positions. Alani Havili-Katoa and Leki Fotu provide depth. At end, Hunter Dimick is off to a great start to his senior season, with 18 tackles, 7 tackles for loss and 5 sacks. He is solid playing the run as well as a dangerous pass rusher. Pita Taumoepenu still struggles with his discipline at times, giving up big plays when he gets caught out of position or not keeping containment as a pass rusher. Chris Hart and Bradlee Anae round out the depth chart. Hart is a pure pass rusher while Anae looks like he could be a solid all-around player similar to Dimick.

Utah’s linebackers have struggled stopping the run, getting got out of position or not fitting their gaps properly. They did a better job of executing run fits against Cal, but they will be tested by Arizona in the option and in the run-pass options in particular. Sunia Tauteoli has been quiet since his big game against BYU; though he leads the team with 37 tackles he hasn’t made many impact plays. Cody Barton is now splitting snaps with Kavika Luafatasaga. Barton has had the most problems with run fits and it looks like Luafatasaga might be overtaking Barton on the depth chart. Luafatasaga is a terrific athlete and showed good instincts at junior college. He has been held back because of familiarity with Utah’s defense, though his role has been increasing each week.

The secondary had a rough time against Cal, continually getting beat deep with little or no safety help to be found. Cal did not throw the ball anywhere near safety Marcus Williams, preferring to throw to the opposite side of the field Williams was on. Utah also played Chase Hansen as the deep safety at times, which Cal took advantage of by throwing over-the-top toward Hansen, who is a better in-the-box safety.

Brian Allen had a rough game against Cal and was the target of several deep passes. It might have been Allen’s worst performance as a Ute. He needs to bounce back against Arizona. Dominique Hatfield was solid and was the only bright spot in the secondary against Cal. Reginald Porter left the Cal game with an undisclosed injury, and his status against Arizona is not known. If Porter is unavailable, freshman Julian Blackmon would take over as the third corner.

Nickel defenders Justin Thomas and Boobie Hobbs did not have great games against Cal, and they will need to play better against an Arizona offense that likes to throw the ball to their slot receivers. Thomas has been a step behind in coverage this season, something uncharacteristic for one of the better nickel defenders in the conference.

Edge: Utah

Special Teams

Josh Pollack handles punting and placekicking duties for the Wildcats. As a placekicker, he’s made 5 of 6 kicks. He doesn’t have a big leg, but he has displayed good accuracy. His lone miss of the season was a 52-yard kick in the first game. As a punter, Pollack struggles, averaging 44.6 yards per punt with a 40.7-yard net average. His punts tend to be low and short, though he will at times get off a punt with good distance and hang-time. 5 of his 25 punts have gone for 50 or more yards.

Arizona’s coverage teams have been inconsistent, though outside of the UCLA game the inconsistency hadn’t resulted in huge returns. On the season they are giving up 21.5 yards per kick return and 9.5 yards per punt return. Against UCLA, they allowed two kick returns of 50 or more yards and a 33-yard punt return. Arizona’s injuries and lack of depth might be starting to show on special teams.

In the return game, Arizona has struggled, averaging just 4 yards per punt return and 15.2 yards per kick return. They have flashed some potential for big plays, with a 33-yard kick return and two punt returns of more than 15 yards. Blocking has been a big problem. Tyrell Johnson has been the primary kick returner, with 139 yards on 9 returns. That might change with Johnson taking more of a role in the offense. Cam Denson fills in for Johnson, returning 4 kicks for 72 yards.

Utah’s special teams bounced back after a rough game against USC, allowing 15.3 yards per kick return and not allowing a punt return. Donovan Thompson has come on strong in kick coverage with 4 tackles in the last 3 games, including a pair of tackles against Cal.

The return game continues to be a problem for the Utes, though they did finally have a kick return go for more than 15 yards, as Troy McCormick had a 19-yard return against Cal. Utah is last in the country averaging 13.9 yards per kick return. The team is fairing a little better on punt returns, averaging 7.7 yards per return, ranking 67th nationally. Boobie Hobbs continues to be aggressive fielding punts and leads the country with 17 punt returns.

Andy Phillips did not look good against Cal as he made 1 of 2 field goal attempts. His lingering foot injury clearly impacted his missed 48-yard attempt as the ball fell well short, something that has never happened to Phillips on kicks of less than 50 yards. Kickoffs were a problem for the Utes, with several short kickoffs and a kick out-of-bounds as Mitch Wishnowsky kicked off for the first time as a Ute. Wishnowsky was solid again punting the football, despite punting to short fields. He averaged 42.3 yards per punt against Cal, with 2 of his 3 kicks downed inside the 10-yard line. He continues to lead the country in punt average and net punting average.

Edge: Utah

On paper, this looks like a comfortable Utah win. However, this is an Arizona team and coaching staff that has Utah’s number on both sides of the ball. Utah continues to have problems executing on offense in the redzone (13 touchdowns in 24 chances) or scoring from outside the redzone (3 touchdowns from outside the redzone). Until Utah shows they can slow down the Arizona running game and get touchdowns in the redzone it will be difficult for them to defeat Rich Rodriguez and the Wildcats. Arizona 35-31.

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