The status of Arizona redshirt senior quarterback Matt Scott is uncertain for Saturday's game at Utah. Scott suffered a concussion in the second half of the Nov. 3 loss at UCLA.
Should Scott remain unavailable, the reps BJ Denker got under his belt in last week's 56-31 rout of Colorado become that much more important when the Wildcats visit Utah on Saturday.
Denker saw playing time prior to Arizona's sixth and bowl eligibility-solidifying win over CU, but rarely in possessions of consequence. He scored a touchdown in the Week 3 rout of South Carolina State, came on in garbage time at Oregon and after Scott's injury at UCLA. The closest meaningful snaps Denker took were those to run out the clock in Arizona's upset of USC on Oct. 27.
His first opportunity to make an impact went swimmingly. After a fumble on UA's opening possession that set up a Buffalo touchdown, Denker settled in to go 12-14 passing for 136 yards and two touchdowns, and carry nine times for another 44 yards and one touchdown.
"The quarterback decision making on about 80 percent of the plays...was pretty much spot on," said Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez in his weekly press conference. "He had a handful, maybe four or five, plays that he'd like to have back but we were pretty pleased with that."
Rodriguez specifically cited Denker's recognition of a pass play breaking down, and timing his rushes accordingly, saying: "He was very composed. Some of the speed options and couple of runs that he took off with for first downs were big plays for us."
Denker's performance can be easily disregarded as "only Colorado." After all, the Buffaloes came in giving up 46.2 points per game to rank behind such notables as UMass and South Alabama. The bigger picture evaluation isn't so much the numbers he registered as the in-game experience itself. Think of it like a more valuable practice session.
Denker could face a Utah defense that ranks No. 18 nationally against the rush. Tackle Star Lotulelei anchors the Utes' stingy play up front, which is yielding all of 3.3 yards per carry. That means the Wildcats cannot rely exclusively on Ka'Deem Carey.
"We don't have any players that are similar to [Lotulelie's] size, strength and speed to emulate it in practice. He has been a dominant player in this league for a couple of years and he will be a first round draft pick," Rodriguez said.
Carey and the overall ground attack will still be important -- Washington ground Bishop Sankey for 36 carries in the Huskies' win last week -- but being able to attack a more vulnerable Ute secondary is crucial. Sankey accrued 162 yards, but was averaging 4.5 an attempt. His workload was part of a larger strategy that included Keith Price throwing 33 times for 277 yards.
Utah is less effective stopping the pass, particularly when opponents are balanced in their attacks. In its six losses, UU has seen a balanced split of rushes and carries four times -- UCLA and Arizona State are the exceptions, but both had the defensive efforts to completely shut down the Ute offense.
Since that's highly unlikely for UA to replicate, following the blueprint of an even pass-rush approach Oregon State, Washington, USC and Utah State employed is the Wildcats' best path to their first road win. Don't anticipate another 38-14 rush-to-pass split.
Having now seen a live action, Pac-12 defense, Denker is better equipped to spread the ball on pass plays than he was previously -- even if it was only Colorado.