The Utes pair something old (their consistent excellence on the defensive line) with something new (a different look on offense). How do the Wildcats stack up? We dove in and took a look at the numbers underlying this week’s match-up.
The Utes’ offense has a distinctly different flavor to it this year. Last year, Utah relied heavily on running back Joe Williams, who carried the ball more than 200 times for more than 1,400 yards. In 2014 and 2015, the Utes leaned on Devontae Booker, who ran for at least 1,200 yards in each of those two seasons. Over those three seasons, the Utes only passed the ball about 40 percent of the time, choosing to focus on the running game instead.
This year, things are different. The Utes are now throwing the ball 47.9 percent of the time, a staggering increase over prior seasons. The way Utah is running the ball has changed, too: quarterback Tyler Huntley leads the team in both carries and yards. After adding Troy Taylor from Eastern Washington as offensive coordinator, the Utes’ offense has a new look.
The Wildcats have had some success against Utah in recent years, but they’ll have to adapt to slow down the Utes offense this season.
It’s early in the season, but Utah’s rush defense looks fantastic, as usual. Through three games, the Utes have only given up 148 yards on the ground, with opposing offenses averaging only 1.66 yards per rush. They’ve only given up one rushing touchdown. As USA Today noted at the beginning of the season, Utah’s defensive line just reloads year after year, with at least one Ute defensive lineman being named first-team All Pac-12 every year since 2011.
The Wildcats, though, will still present a challenge for Utah. North Dakota, BYU, and San Jose State (Utah’s opponents earlier this year) are nowhere near as effective at running the ball as Arizona, and with Brandon Dawkins, J.J. Taylor, and a presumably healthy Nick Wilson, the Wildcats can run both inside and out.
The Houston game is the cautionary tale. Against the Cougars, Arizona threw the ball more than usual, worried about Ed Oliver’s influence in the middle. The result was a very bad day by Brandon Dawkins, a costly interception from Khalil Tate, and, eventually, an Arizona loss. Utah doesn’t have an Ed Oliver, but they do have Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi, and they could dissuade the Wildcats from running the ball. If Arizona struggles to run the ball early, they may be suckered into passing a lot more, and Arizona will struggle to win that way.
Utah may be ranked, and Arizona may only have wins over an FCS team that is going to fire its coach and the sixth-worst team in FBS. Still: the spread in this game is pretty tight, with the Utes favored by 3.5. The reasons are pretty simple: the Utes aren’t as good as their ranking suggests and the Wildcats get to play in Tucson.
Surprisingly — to me, anyway — the Wildcats are actually projected to keep the game closer than the spread, at least per S&P+, with the computers projecting a narrow two-point loss for Arizona.
Arizona is a flawed team. The defense has played well, but is still relatively raw. Meanwhile, the offense has yet to show it can complete passes and move the ball consistently against real competition.
A home game against a slightly overrated Utah team is the perfect opportunity for the Wildcats to get some momentum going as they head into Pac-12 play. Let’s hope they capitalize.