Arizona Wildcats vs. Utah Utes Complete Game Preview
The Arizona Wildcats are limping home after back-to-back disappointing road losses. The Utah Utes are riding high following their biggest win in years, but now leave the confines of their stadium for the first time in Pac-12 Conference play.
The stakes are high for both teams heading into their meeting Saturday night in Tucson, with the outcome going a long way toward determining the overall season success—and potential postseason involvement—for each club.
While both Arizona (3-2, 0-2) and Utah (4-2, 1-2) are two games behind South Division leader UCLA in the loss column, so much can still happen with at least half the season remaining for each team.
The teams have won on each others' fields since Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, with Arizona taking the last meeting 34-24 last season in Salt Lake City.
Time: 10 p.m. ET
Place: Arizona Stadium; Tucson, Ariz.
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: Arizona IMG Sports Network, Utah Utes Radio Network
Spread: Arizona is listed as a 4.5-point favorite at most Las Vegas sportsbooks, according to Vegas Insider.
Arizona's Keys to Victory
Return to the Air Raid
Arizona still ranks 112th in the country in passing yardage at 161.6 per game, and 95th in passing efficiency, but those numbers are vastly improved thanks to a career game from quarterback B.J. Denker in the loss at USC.
It might have been partly due to USC's defenders getting lazy on deep balls, but most of the pass attack was the result of Denker finally gaining confidence in his ability to throw the ball, and not just short routes in which he'd previously overshoot his receivers.
Having the ability to pass as well as, if not better than, the Wildcats have run the ball will provide the necessary balance to match up with their remaining opponents, starting with a Utah team that has struggled to defend the pass.
Avoid big plays on defense
While Arizona's offense has shown signs of progress, the defense has gone backwards in its evolution. This was evident far too often early against USC, as the Wildcats' secondary was regularly beat for big plays.
That hadn't been the case in the first three games of the season, when Arizona recorded six interceptions and had three defensive touchdowns.
Keeping those big plays in check is imperative for the Wildcats in order to snap their two-game losing streak.
A heavy dose of Ka'Deem
Junior tailback Ka'Deem Carey has rushed for 100 or more yards in eight consecutive games. During that stretch, Arizona has only won five of the games, showing that Carey finds a way to contribute offensively no matter what the game situation is.
He rushed for 206 yards on 26 carries in last year's win at Utah. Last week against USC he ran for 138 yards on 21 rushes, breaking off big runs in the second half even with the Wildcats trailing.
Leading or trailing, Carey will get the ball.
Utah's Keys to Victory
Minimize the mistakes
The difference between Utah's epic upset of Stanford last weekend and the losses suffered in previous Pac-12 home games to Oregon State and UCLA was simple: the ability to avoid critical mistakes.
Utes quarterback Travis Wilson threw six interceptions in the loss to UCLA, but against Stanford the Utes only had one turnover.
Continue with the pressure
Utah leads the Pac-12 and is eighth nationally with 20 sacks, averaging 3.33 per game. Thirteen different players have been involved in at least part of one of those tackles for loss, with no single player responsible for more than 3.5 takedowns.
But while the Utes put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, they must also find a way to get positive results on plays when they don't actually get a sack. The sack numbers contradict the fact that Utah is 10th in the conference in passing defense, meaning it's been an all-or-nothing approach.
Utah is riding a wave of notoriety and accolades for pulling off the season's first major upset, but now it plays four of the next five on the road. Throw in the unfamiliar environment and facing a struggling Arizona opponent that's searching for its own momentum and Saturday's game has all the makings of a classic letdown.
Nothing is more demoralizing than following a momentous win—Utah's first over a top-five team since beating Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl—with a disappointing loss.
Arizona Players to Watch
Denker was possibly the worst full-time starting quarterback among all teams from BCS conferences during the first four weeks of the season. Or at least that's how his statistics seemed, what with only 111 passing yards per game and a woeful completion percentage.
Then came the USC game, where Denker suddenly showed off an ability to hit receivers and find open receivers deep, throwing for 363 yards and four touchdowns, both career highs. Even more amazing was that many of his best completions came while rolling out and then, inexplicably, breaking out an old-school jump pass to get the ball over the defense.
Denker now gets to match up against a relatively weak pass defense, and could be the X-factor for Arizona getting its first Pac-12 win.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez went out of his way to speak to the media this week about his concerns with Arizona's special teams, even volunteering that backup kicker Casey Skowron was healthy. That puts a big spotlight on Smith.
The senior has been shaky with his kicking, missing three field goals under 40 yards as well as an extra point. He could get yanked at any point now, especially if Arizona finds itself in a close game where points are at a premium.
How Smith responds to this pressure could make or break the game for the Wildcats.
Utah Players to Watch
Wilson can look really good (421 yards of total offense, including 142 on the ground against Oregon State) or really bad (six interceptions against UCLA). Either way, he's always one of the most exciting players on the field, finding a way to make a big play of some sort every game.
He has tossed at least two touchdown passes every game, so even if he makes some bonehead throws from time to time he can still be called on to provide an offensive spark for the Utes.
Phillips is one of 20 kickers in the nation who has yet to miss a field goal this season. But none have made as many as Phillips, who is 11-for-11 and has made four kicks beyond 40 yards. That includes a 48-yarder early in the fourth quarter of the win over Stanford.
Coach Kyle Whittingham doesn't have to have his team be one of those touchdown-or-nothing teams because of Phillips.
What They Are Saying
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez noted his displeasure with both his team's intensity and its defense during his weekly press conference:
" I didn’t think we came out with the same kind of fire and intensity that we needed to in order to win. ... Sometimes we didn’t get off a block, sometimes our eyes weren’t where they needed to be, and sometimes they executed better than us. We gave up a few big plays and in a game like that it’s disappointing. We’re not to where we’re going to be."
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham spent a good portion of his weekly news conference lauding Ka'Deem Carey:
"He's a guy that can really change direction, and tough to tackle. We've got our work cut out for us, and we've got to do a much better job than we did last year on him. I've been impressed with him since the first time I watched him play, and I think he's one of the top backs in the country."
The Salt Lake Tribune chronicled Utah's running back-by-committee approach, which to this point has averaged 192 yards per game despite not really having a go-to guy:
"Running back by committee isn’t a bad thing as long as we are getting production and right now we are getting good production," Whittingham said.
Arizona is anxious to show its home crowd that the 3-0 start they saw back in September (before the Wildcats went on the road for a month, despite only playing two games) was not an anomaly. There were things to be happy about from both the road losses, and combining those with the positives from early in the season should lead to a win for Arizona.
That is, unless Utah is able to carry over the way it played against Stanford.
It's unlikely, though, because Arizona doesn't present the same level of "big opponent" as the Cardinals did. Combine that with being outside of the state of Utah for the first time and the Utes won't be able to come out on top.
Prediction: Arizona 33, Utah 27