Utah (6-3, 5-1) is running away with the Pac-12’s South Division, having just won 52-7 at Stanford last week for their fifth victory in six games. The Utes have also owned Arizona (1-8, 1-5) of late, winning the last four meetings with the last two by an average of 30 points.
To better understand the Utes, we reached out to AJ Woods of SB Nation sister site BlockU.com. Here are his firm answers to our gelatinous questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: Pardon the pun, but Utah’s offense really took off after Cameron Rising took over as starting quarterback. What’s been the key to his play, and why wasn’t he the starter from the outset?
AJ Woods: “Cam transferred to Utah from the Texas Longhorns and was named the starter for the 2020 season, beating out South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley, but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the first quarter of his debut against USC. Though he was healthy to start this season, former Baylor star Charlie Brewer won a VERY narrow QB battle due to his experience, and in part to try and keep Rising healthy after last season’s scare. The difference between the two was almost immediate, though. Utah’s o-line struggled early in the season due to injuries and constantly shuffling linemen to new positions, and Rising’s mobility made that less of a factor. Beyond that, he seems to have more natural chemistry with his receivers. Brewer is a talented guy and I hope he finds success wherever he lands next, but the team voted Rising as captain for a reason, and I believe that chemistry played a big part in that.”
Three 100-yard rushers in the same game is pretty cool, even if Arizona did it before it was cool back in 2017. Tavion Thomas looks to be the best of that trio, but what does each bring to the Utes’ run game?
“Thomas is a bruiser. His size makes him difficult to tackle. He’s the kind of back who is going to chew yardage after contact and fight for every inch of grass he can. TJ Pledger is a bit more shifty and has incredible burst speed, as witnessed on his 94-yard touchdown last week against Stanford. Of the three, Micah Bernard is the youngest, and perhaps most versatile. Really traditional back who can hit a hole or juke defenders to find the line to gain, but is an underrated pass catcher as well. The dude is an absolute Swiss Army knife. I can see him being the next Britain Covey.”
Statistically, Arizona is only a shade behind Utah in terms of total defense, though the Utes lead the Pac-12 in sacks and tackles for loss. What’s the key to their scheme?
“Kyle Whittingham’s teams are notoriously tough in the trenches. The defensive line can open up gaps to let linebackers in to pressure opposing QBs, and outside of the second half of the Oregon State game, they do a really good job of stopping the run up front. Mika Tafua, who plays left defensive end, is one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the conference. He has a knack for spinning out of containment and getting to the ball, and really is the heart and soul of the defense. When he’s on, everyone on the defense performs at another level.”
Has linebacker Devin Lloyd locked up Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year yet? If not, what else does he need to do?
“I’m obviously biased, but I don’t see how Lloyd doesn’t get that honor this season. Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux is certainly in the running, but in my eyes he’s missed too much time to clinch DPOY status this year. Lloyd’s overall body of work (18 TFL, 7 sacks, 3 INT, 1 TD) speaks for itself.”
Last year’s Utah/Arizona game was canceled the day before due to COVID issues in Salt Lake City. How many players would the Utes need to be without for this matchup to make it a level playing field, and is there any chance of this happening?
“I’m not going to pretend to understand the ins and outs of COVID protocol, and I’ll preface this by stating I’m far from a legal expert or a public health expert, but I will say at last report, the Utes are around 95 percent vaccinated and the team has not reported any positive cases this season. That obviously could change at a moment’s notice, and if the team lost the likes of Rising, Lloyd and Tafua, along with the three-headed monster that is Thomas/Pledger/Bernard, there would be cause for concern. No offense to the Wildcats, but COVID obviously played a part in last week’s win, so it’s a fair question, but my understanding is the city of Berkeley’s COVID policies and a misinterpretation of those policies were a factor in keeping over two dozen players from traveling last week. To my knowledge, Salt Lake City has no such policies or mandates in place that would prevent student-athletes from traveling if a player tested positive for the virus, but submitted an updated negative test prior to travel, so I personally don’t see this being an issue.”
Prediction time: How bad is Utah going to beat Arizona, and what will the score be?
“The oddsmakers have the Utes, who are 4-2 against the spread in Pac-12 play, as 24-point favorites, so I’m inclined to side with recent history here and say Utah wins 38-10. Arizona’s rush defense is much better than Stanford’s, but I don’t see anything to suggest they’ll be able to stop the ground game completely, and even if they do, Rising is more than capable of putting the offense on his shoulders. On the defensive side, I’m genuinely concerned for Will Plummer’s safety. I know he’s battled through a couple injuries and shown some real moxie throughout the season, but the Wildcats are pretty thin at QB right now, and if he gets knocked out early, I’m prepared to say Utah could win 51-0.”