The Arizona Wildcats begin their most critical stretch of the 2018 season when playing Friday at the Utah Utes in Salt Lake City. It’s the first of back-to-back Pac-12 road games—Arizona plays Oct. 20 at UCLA—that will go a long way toward determining if Kevin Sumlin’s first season with the Wildcats includes a bowl appearance.
Utah (3-2, 1-2) is coming off an impressive 40-21 win at Stanford and has won two in a row over Arizona (3-3, 2-1) including last year’s 30-24 win in Tucson. The Wildcats are 13.5-point underdogs, their worst point spread since November 2016.
Running against the Runnin’ Utes
Utah is the overwhelming Pac-12 leader in rushing defense, allowing 75.4 yards per game. That includes holding Stanford (minus Bryce Love) to 42 yards on the ground last week.
Not exactly the best scenario for Arizona to get its run game back into gear. The Wildcats average 201.8 rushing yards per game but in the past two contests they’ve managed only 222 yards and one touchdown on 71 carries, a rate of 3.13 yards per rush.
Part of the issue has been the health of Arizona’s best offensive lineman, senior left tackle Layth Friekh. He’s been hobbled the last two weeks, starting but unable to finish games against USC and California, and those teams were quite sizable on the front line which made the running lanes quite small.
Utah’s defensive front has a pair of 300-pounders in the middle and two 250-pound ends, a quartet that has combined for 10.5 tackles for loss.
The QB rotation
Khalil Tate is going to remain Arizona’s starting quarterback unless his left foot falls off, which means until the Wildcats have a bye (the second week of November) his ankle isn’t going to get any better with him playing on it.
But last week we saw the first indication that Sumlin is truly concerned about whether Tate can keep going when he inserted true freshman Jamarye Joiner for a series in the first quarter against Cal. That drive went nowhere—actually backwards—and sapped all of Arizona’s early momentum, but it sounds like that might be something we’ll see again this game and beyond.
Does that mean Joiner will get live reps against Utah or will fellow true freshman Kevin Doyle might make his collegiate debut? What about redshirt freshman K’Hari Lane? Or will sophomore Rhett Rodriguez, who relieved Tate in three games this season, be given some meaningful snaps and not just ones in garbage time?
Outside of the debacle at Houston in Week 2, Arizona’s defense has gotten better each week. The performance against Cal was the best yet, with four takeaways and a pair of defensive touchdowns.
There’s room for much more improvement and Utah is a good opponent to be able to do that to. Despite scoring 40 against Stanford last week, overall the Utes have struggled with the ball, their 5.56 yards per play third-worst in the Pac-12.
Utah is middle-of-the-pack in converting third downs, at 40.3 percent, while Arizona is 10th in the league in allowing conversions 44 percent of the time.
Red zone results
Utah and Arizona are the two best teams in the Pac-12 in terms of preventing opponents from scoring in the red zone. The Utes have allowed points on just eight of 13 defensive red zone possessions, with seven touchdowns, while Arizona has kept teams off the scoreboard in six of 31 red zone trips with 12 TDs yielded.
Both teams are in the upper half in the league when it comes to scoring in the red zone. Utah is fourth, at 84.6 percent, but has made only 13 trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line (with 11 scores and just seven TDs) in five games, while Arizona has 12 TDs and three field goals in 18 red-zone possessions.
Short week impacts
The Friday night kickoff, coming after a Saturday night game that ended just before 11 p.m., means Arizona had to massively condense its game-week preparations for Utah. The Utes are in the same boat but didn’t have to include a travel day like the Wildcats did on Thursday.
It’s unclear exactly how the shorter week affected Arizona’s game planning, but it could mean some players who were nursing injuries from the Cal game might not have enough time to recover and play. Arizona doesn’t issue injury reports, so that means keeping a close eye on pre-game warmups to see if anyone may have to sit out.