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What to watch for when Arizona football faces Utah in home finale

arizona-wildcats-football-utah-utes-preview-odds-military-appreciation-seniors-pac12-2021 Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2021 regular season doesn’t end for a few more weeks, but for Arizona it’s time playing at home is nearly over. Saturday’s game against the Utah Utes is the Wildcats’ finale at Arizona Stadium, and along with Senior Day it will be Military Appreciation Day (complete with special ‘Dress Whites’ uniforms).

Arizona (1-8, 1-5 Pac-12) is coming off its first win of the season, and first in more than two years, beating Cal 10-3 last Saturday on Homecoming. Utah (6-3, 5-1) has won five of six and is atop the South Division, with Draftkings Sportsbook listing Arizona as a 24-point underdog.

Here’s what to watch for in the UA’s home finale:

Building off that big win

The 20-game losing streak is officially a thing of the past, something that’s part of Arizona’s history instead of an ominous presence in the present. Coach Jedd Fisch said Monday the team was taking a “so what, now what?” approach following that victory, no longer preparing to face a streak and an actual opponent.

He also said that, while the win signifies that all the hard work has finally paid off, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot more work left to be done.

“Pretty good improvement, I would say from, let’s call it early this season, or a year ago, and a way away away from where we want to be in the future,” he said Monday.

Arizona may look a lot looser on the field against Utah because of this, yet Fisch said the effort hasn’t changed.

“You would never know when you watch our team practice what our record was, in my opinion,” he said. “And I’ve kind of gotten that feedback from others that have just kind of showed up to our practices. Our guys have continued to work extremely hard, determined to build for the future. I’ve told them all, you guys are building the foundation. And they’ve embraced that. Do I feel like the last three weeks each day they are believing more and more? Yeah, I do believe that. I believe that, really Washington week, SC week, last week. There was just a great belief that this is just normal football and one of the two teams are going to win and one of the two teams are going to lose and it was no longer about how many have we lost before. Now I just feel like we’re we’re at that point that we’re just going to go out every week and play normal football.”

The last (home) hurrah for many

Arizona will have approximately 23 players participate in pregame Senior Day festivities, Fisch said, down from the 30 or 31 he estimated on Monday. He said those not participating from his original list have already walked once at Arizona, or another school, or their families couldn’t make it.

The UA has 34 players on its online roster listed as juniors or seniors, and thanks to the extra COVID year of eligibility means they’ve all been in college for at least four years.

“Some of those guys might be returning next year, that are walking still, but we’re gonna give most of those guys the opportunity to do so,” Fisch said.

It’s going to be 23, is going to be the number. We have about eight guys that have already walked at either previous schools or might have walked already (here), or their families can’t make it. So we’re going to leave the field about three minutes earlier than traditional, and then each senior will be able to have four people on the field. Due to COVID protocols we can have more than that. They’ll be out at the far end zone. And we’ll be able to get all 22 or 23 of those guys honored and be able to move forward.

Linebacker Anthony Pandy, a fifth-year senior whose eligibility is up, said he doesn’t know if it will “hit him” that it’s his last game at Arizona Stadium until he’s out on the field.

“It’s pretty crazy, it happened really fast, faster than I thought it was going to happen,” he said.

Pandy is one of 12 players on the roster that have been around since at least 2017, meaning they’re on their third coaching staff. That those players have bought into Fisch’s vision, and led by example, has been crucial to Arizona’s long-term plans.

“It’s been, I would probably say, the most important thing that’s happened to this program since I’ve been here,” Fisch said. “For the way that they’ve embraced what all of us have asked them to do. The commitment we’ve asked from them, the way we’ve asked them to lead and trust us,. The young guys kind of just do what the seniors do. And if the seniors are doing it and the seniors are believing it and buying into it and really wanting to be a part of it, good things are coming.”

Matching up against the model

Fisch said Utah is “the model” in the Pac-12 for how he wants his program to be due to the Utes’ consistency across the board. Head coach Kyle Whittingham has been there since 2005, tied for the second-longest active tenure in FBS, and during his time very little about Utah has changed.

“They know exactly what they want to look like,” he said. “Their defense looks a certain way, they recruit to that. You could see they kind of have the same type of players that they just fill in. Offensively they know exactly what they want to be, they play to that, and their consistency and the way they’ve been able to ... keep their coaches together, keep their program together is something that we model.”

Utah will bring a challenge that Arizona hasn’t seen this year in both its offensive game plan and stoutness on defense. Fisch said Oregon might be the closest on the offensive side, in terms of the commitment to the run—the Utes are second in the Pac-12 in rushing, averaging 219.7 yards per game, while Oregon (218.7) is third—but it’s out of a more pro-style scheme than the RPO system the Ducks use.

On defense, Utah leads the Pac-12 in sacks (28) and tackles for loss (71) and is led by junior linebacker Devin Lloyd, who is tops in the conference with seven tackles and 18 TFL and is a semifinalist for the Walter Camp Award given to college football’s top player.

Staying upright

Will Plummer is expected to start against Utah despite injuring his shoulder and hand against Cal, while walk-on Luke Ashworth will be the only other quarterback who will dress. Running back Michael Wiley and wide receiver Jamarye Joiner, both of whom have taken snaps in the backfield, are also options.

Plummer was Arizona’s leading rusher against Cal, gaining 68 yards on 11 carries despite being sacked twice. As much as Fisch likes what his scrambling has produced, he’d prefer that be a last resort.

“Really don’t need to scramble when you have (tight end) Alex Lines running right down the field on the second play of the game,” Fisch said. “You could throw it Alex and then avoid two hits. Those are some of the points and conversations that I’m having with Wll that, if you stay with the reads, you might have a better chance to avoid hits, stay upright, and then get the ball out your hands.”

Turnover tallies

Arizona is dead last in the country in turnover margin, at minus-14. Its 20 turnovers are the most since giving it away 22 times in 2017, but that was over 12 games, and that season the Wildcats forced 25 turnovers.

This year: six, and the only one in the past four games was Pandy’s pick-six at USC.

As good as Arizona’s defense has been all season, and particularly last time out against Cal, its lack of turnovers produced has to be concerning. Especially with Utah coming off a blowout win at Stanford where it had two takeaways, including a pick-six by Lloyd, as well as the UA’s propensity for coughing it up in key situations (like, inexplicably, three times this season on screen passes).