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Utah expert previews the Arizona game, makes a score prediction

arizona-wildcats-football-utah-utes-preview-breakdown-pac12-whittingham-rising-kincaid-tavian-thomas Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, ahead of facing Utah at home, Jedd Fisch noted that the Utes are the kind of program he’d like to emulate Arizona after. They were on their way to a 10-4 season and a Pac-12 title, and since joining the conference in 2011 have appeared in eight bowl games and won nine-plus games six times.

The current Utah team, sitting at 14th in the first College Football Playoff rankings, is 6-2 overall and 4-1 in Pac-12 play. It has also won five in a row over Arizona (3-5, 1-4) including 38-29 last November in Tucson.

To better understand the Utes, we reached out to our old friends at the site formerly known as Block U for some insight. Here are their intelligent answers to our moronic questions:

AZ Desert Swarm: Utah’s last game, a 4-point win at Washington State, was probably most notable for the absence (and early departure) of several key players. What is the status of quarterback Cam Rising, running back Tavian Thomas and tight end Dalton Kincaid? And if any or all of these guys can’t go, who steps in? And what’s the difference, good or bad, between the starters and the backups?

Block U: “Kyle Whittingham has a strict policy where injuries aren’t discussed unless they’re season ending, so we know Rising and Kincaid are banged up, but to what extent remains a mystery. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rising was back in action simply because all indications suggest he was a game-time decision last week and will have had an additional 10 or so days to rest since the Wazzu surprise. If he doesn’t start, expect Bryson Barnes to once again step up in his place.

“Kincaid is probably less likely to go. He’s been heavily targeted over the last two games and left Pullman pretty banged up as a result. Logan Kendall, a transfer out of Idaho State, appears to be the most likely replacement to fill the TE position, but if Kendall gets the start, I’d wager that the WR group, particularly Solomon Enis and Devaughn Vele, are likely to see more targets.

“Thomas is a different situation altogether. Little is known about his lack of playing time this season but there’s no lack of speculation. Whatever is keeping him from hitting the field is irrelevant and I wish him the best as he continues to heal mentally and physically. Arizona shouldn’t expect much change offensively if any of these three can’t go this week, as the Utes have been using a stable of running backs all season as it is, and Barnes has a similar playing style to Rising. If Kincaid is indeed out, that would be the largest impact as the offense has really ran through the tight ends this season.”

Utah has allowed only six sacks all season, just three in Pac-12 play. Is this more a function of the system or the line play?

“Utah’s line play has been excellent this season, which I attribute to staying healthier than last year when the line was in a constant state of flux and never really having a chance to gel. Couple that with Rising’s mobility and you’re not going to get to the QB often.”

The Utes lead the conference in total defense, are second in tackles for loss and second in turnovers forced. Why has that side of the ball been able to remain so consistently good for so long?

“The key to Utah’s long-term success has to be chalked up to consistency. Current defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley is basically a Utah lifer, having played DB at the U from 2001-04 before joining the coaching staff in 2007. He understands Whittingham’s defense better than almost anyone, and that defensive philosophy has been fairly unwavering since Whittingham first became DC for the Utes way back in 1995. At this point, the defense is very much just a plug and play system that is proven to work.”

That being said, are there any flaws on defense that opponents have been able to expose?

“This season is a bit of an anomaly in the fact that linebackers aren’t quite yet NFL-caliber players, so midfield coverage can be a little soft right now, but with so much youth and inexperience in that group, it’s only a matter of time until guys like Lander Barton are being heralded as early-round draft picks.”

Prediction time. Does Utah win a sixth straight game over Arizona or does Jedd Fisch finally pick up a win over a ranked opponent? Give us a score pick.

“Arizona is much improved this season and I’ve had fun watching them put that unbelievably stacked recruiting class to work. The Wildcats played Utah tight last year with a much less-talented squad, and with a lot of questions surrounding Utah’s offense, I wouldn’t be surprised to see another close game. That said, the forecast is cold and wet, and Rice-Eccles is a naturally hostile environment so I’m still inclined to give the edge to Utah, 24-20.”