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What to watch for when Arizona football visits No. 14 Utah

arizona-wildcats-football-preview-utah-utes-cameron-rising-rice-eccles-weather-pac12-defense-2022 Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats start a 2-game road swing on Saturday when they visit the Utah Utes in Salt Lake City, where they haven’t won since 2014.

The Utes (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) came in at 14th in the first College Football Playoff rankings and are the third top-15 team the UA has faced in the past month. Another, No. 12 UCLA, looms next weekend in Los Angeles.

“I think our guys are excited about it,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said. “We certainly didn’t flinch last week. It’s another great opportunity to figure out exactly where we are on the spectrum of the build of this program.”

Here’s what to watch for when Arizona (3-5, 1-4) tries to snap a 3-game losing streak overall overall and a 5-game to the Utes:

Rough conditions and a tough environment

Utah may have the best homefield advantage in the Pac-12, and possibly one of the best in FBS. The Utes regular sell out Rice-Eccles Stadium, topping 51,000 fans for every game since expanding its capacity before the 2021 season, and have won 12 in a row there.

Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, Utah is 32-19 at home against conference opponents. Since 2018 that record is 17-2.

“We want to be that,” Fisch said. “I don’t know why we can’t be.”

The forecast calls for rain and temperatures not getting above 50 degrees, conditions Arizona hasn’t had to play in this season. It was 73 and sunny (albeit hazy, because of nearby wildfires) when the Wildcats played in Seattle last month, while it was clear and warm for games at Cal and San Diego State and the weather has been perfect for all five UA games in Tucson.

All that, combined with an opponent that leads the Pac-12 in total defense leads to one question: is Arizona ready to handle all of that?

“They better be, or it’s not going to be a fun Saturday night,” Fisch said. “I told our guys ... if the rains it rains. If it doesn’t it doesn’t. We can’t control that at all. So our goal is going to be strictly to play the competition, not the weather, and do everything we possibly can to move the football (and) prevent them from moving the ball and winning.”

While Salt Lake City will provide a new experience for this team, Fisch believes it has already shown it can deal with tough situations.

“We certainly saw you could go to Washington on Homecoming, and go head to head and make it a 42-39 game with a couple of minutes left. You can play the No. 9 team in the country (USC) here for Homecoming and be down a score, be down two points with 14 minutes left, be down a score with a minute.”

Who Utah suits up on offense

When the Utes won 21-17 at Washington State last week they did so without quarterback Cameron Rising, who was a surprise scratch after going through pre-game warmups. They also didn’t have leading rusher Tavian Thomas, while backup Micah Bernard and playmaking tight end Dalton Kincaid both got injured.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who in his 18th season and is tied for the second longest-tenured coach in FBS, is from the as-little-info-as-possible school of injury updates, so pre-game warmups will probably be when Arizona knows for sure which of those guys are going to play or not. Maybe not even then, as was the case with Rising.

With Utah having last played on a Thursday, thus giving it two extra days of rest between games, Fisch expects Rising to be back in action. That means yet another top-tier quarterback for the Wildcats’ struggling defense to face.

“I’ve always thought of him as a very good quarterback, athletic quarterback,” Fisch said of Rising, who has thrown for 1,855 yards and 15 touchdowns with three interceptions and has run for 308 yards and a team-best six TDs. “He’s certainly able to make plays with his feet, throw on the run.”

Fisch remembers recruiting Rising in 2017 when he was at UCLA, and he also offered the former 4-star prospect from California when he was on Michigan’s staff. Rising signed with Texas in 2018 before transferring to Utah, but he didn’t take over as the starter until the fourth game of 2021 after a solid relief performance the week before.

“Did a great job coming in against San Diego State a year ago, really that’s when he showed back up,” Fisch said. “When he went into the second half of that San Diego State game and absolutely started lighting it up. I think Cam is big, tall, very NFL prototype in terms of his ability to run and his ability to throw and his ability to lead. He’s gonna be quite a handful, as it feels like a lot of the Pac-12 quarterbacks are right now.”

Back to smashmouth football

After consecutive games with opponents leaning on the pass, resulting in back-to-back 400-yard efforts, Utah figures to go with a much more balanced attack. The Utes have run more than they’ve thrown in all but one game, the 43-42 shootout win over USC.

Think North Dakota State, but with better skill players.

“I would say that’s exactly what they’re closest to, in the way they they balance their run and pass,” Fisch said. “The way they huddle, or at least use most of the play clock, like North Dakota State does.”

Utah is 11th in FBS in time of possession, holding the ball an average of 33 minutes, 8 seconds. Arizona is 90th, averaging less than 29 minutes of possession per game.

Arizona is used to having the ball less, finishing plus in TOP only against San Diego State and Colorado. Fisch seems to want to change that, but not at the expense of offensive production.

“For us, we’re going to we’re going to find a way, the best we can, to move the football,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we possibly can get score as often as we can, against a very good defense. We’re going to have to find a way to take the ball away, by our defense against their offense, to be able to limit their time of possession. We don’t want them to be in the 31-32 minute (range). We’re going to try to figure out a way to to get more points with every possession we have and really not get too wrapped up in what they’re doing.”

Go big or go home

Arizona’s 158 plays of 10 or more yards are one shy of the most in FBS this season, and also one more than the Wildcats had all of 2021. Their 46 pass plays of 20-plus yards are also second-most and nearly double last year’s tally (27).

Last game saw the UA take a lot more shots downfield than previously. Of his 44 attempts against USC, Jayden de Laura threw 25 of them 10 or more yards downfield and 12 when at least 20 yards in the air for an average depth of target (ADOT) of 11.9.

For the season, de Laura’s ADOT is 10.1, 25th among regular FBS QBs, and only 42.4 percent of his throws go 10-plus yards in the air.

Fisch said much of that was USC’s approach, which was heavy on zone coverage, while Utah figures to play a lot more man. That could mean more intermediate or short routes, but if the deep ones are there Fisch expects de Laura to make that throw.

“We’re not afraid to go over the top,” he said. “We’re gonna throw the go ball and we’re gonna take our chances there with our receivers. I think that (de Laura) throws it really well downfield and it’s allowed us to become a pretty explosive offense. We’re gonna keep doing it.”

Utah has picked off 10 passes, five by cornerback Clark Phillips III, two of which he’s returned for TDs. The Utes have three pick-sixes and Pro Football Focus gives them the 28th-best coverage grade in the country and second-best in the Pac-12 behind UCLA.

I would say just a big mix of coverages, that teams aren’t necessarily playing you in one or two coverages. They’re gonna make it challenging and they’re gonna pressure you, they’re gonna play man and they’re gonna play 2-deep zone and then they’re gonna play 3-deep zone and then they’re going to play quarters and you’re gonna play zero. They’re going to kind of spin the dial a little bit on you, with the different body types that we have out there and the different successes that those guys have had. But this week, I think we’re gonna have our hands full with this defense. They play very, very physical man-to-man coverage. I think Clark Phillips is a fantastic corner.