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What to watch for when Arizona faces Utah in home finale

arizona-wildcats-utah-utes-football-pac12-home-finale-seniors-preview-defense-playoff Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

A once-proimsing season for the Arizona Wildcats is getting close to its disappointing end, with only two games left. A third is still possible in the form of a bowl game, but only if a team riding a five-game losing streak suddenly wins its final two contests.

In other words, not likely.

Arizona (4-6, 2-5 Pac-12) wraps up its home slate on Saturday night with a visit from the Utah Utes, who at 9-1 overall and 6-1 in the conference are close to clinching a second consecutive South Division title. Utah is also No. 7 in the College Football Playoff rankings, this after the Wildcats had to face—and were thumped by—No. 6 Oregon last week.

Here’s what to be on the lookout for when Arizona plays its final home game at 8 p.m. MT Saturday.

Senior swan songs

Arizona has nine scholarship seniors on the roster, all of whom will be playing their last game at Arizona Stadium. That includes quarterback Khalil Tate, wide receiver Cedric Peterson, defensive linemen Justin Belknap and Finton Connolly and defensive backs Tristan Cooper and Jace Whittaker.

A few other players who still have eligibility left are planning to participate in Senior Night ceremonies, including running back J.J. Taylor and cornerback Lorenzo Burns, both of whom are listed as redshirt juniors. Taylor said Tuesday he doesn’t plan to return to Arizona, likely putting his name into the NFL Draft after the season.

It figures to be an emotional night for those players, all of whom have been on the roster since 2015 or 2016, which means they’ve been part of bowl teams in 2015 and/or 2017 but also the 3-9 campaign of 2016.

“I’m probably going to cry to be honest,” Connolly said. “Walking out that tunnel for one more time. That’s probably going to be my biggest emotion, but my dad will be there too and I have a bunch of other family friends coming in so yeah, it’s awesome and I can’t wait. I’m excited to play for them.”

Arizona has won five of its last six home finales, including in 2015 when it upset a Top-10 Utah team in overtime. The only loss in that span: last year’s fourth-quarter collapse to ASU that kept the Wildcats out of a bowl.

Stopping the big play

On the scoreboard, allowing only 34 points to Oregon last week was a promising development for Arizona considering it had allowed 189 points in its previous four games with every opponent scoring at least 41 in that stretch. But the Wildcats still allowed 471 yards including numerous chunk plays.

For the season, the Wildcats rank in the bottom 15 nationally in allowing plays of 10-, 20- or 30-plus yards.

Now enter Utah, which has the rare distinction of leading the Pac-12 in rushing but also having the most efficient pass offense in the conference. Led by school career rushing leader Zack Moss, who was named a Doak Walker Award semifinalist on Thursday, the Utes average 207.1 rushing yards per game. And quarterback Tyler Huntley averages 11.5 yards per pass attempt, second only to Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts among FBS passers.

Four of Oregon’s five TDs last week were for 20 or more yards, including a 73-yard scoring pass on the second snap of the game as well as a TD catch on a flea flicker.

This will be Arizona’s third game with the defensive under the direction of Chuck Cecil, named interim coordinator in late October after Marcel Yates and linebackers coach John Rushing were fired (with Hank Hobson taking over that job). Coach Kevin Sumlin reportedly fired a third defensive assistant on Thursday with reports that defensive line coach Iona Uiagalelei being let go.

Finding a way to move the ball

As explosive as Utah can be on offense, it doesn’t really need to do much with the ball since its defense is so suffocating. The Utes allow 11.3 points per game, fourth-best in the country, allow an FBS-low 55.4 rushing yards per game and 248.6 total yards per game to rank third in the nation.

Arizona is coming off its lowest offensive output of the season against Oregon, gaining only 240 yards and failing to score a TD for the first time since a 49-3 loss to Washington in 2015.

It’s entirely possible the Wildcats could get shut out for the first time since 2012, and if they score six or fewer points it will mark their lowest two-game point total since managing being outscored 73-7 by USC and ASU to end the 2003 season.

Showing up for the troops?

In addition to being Senior Night, Saturday’s game is also Military Appreciation Night. And odds are one of the smallest crowds in recent memory will be on hand for this one.

Arizona is averaging 40,241 fans this season at Arizona Stadium, which is down more than 5,000 from 2018. Three of the five “announced” crowds have been below 40,000, the same number of such turnouts over the previous 16 seasons.

The smallest announced attendance at Arizona Stadium in the 2000s was the 36,651 for the Friday night game against Utah in 2017. The Homecoming crowd for the Wildcats’ last game, Nov. 2 against Oregon State, was only slightly better at 36,939.

Arizona’s smallest home crowd since joining the Pac-10 was 35,599 against Oregon State in 1982. That dubious figure may be topped—or bottomed—on Saturday.