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Statistically Speaking: Utah vs Arizona

The Arizona Wildcats come to Salt Lake City on Saturday with everything on the line for both teams. The loser is out of the South race and moves down the bowl ladder. The winner ascends to the coveted status of "Contender". The Utes meet this challenge with an excellent defense and special teams, and an offense whose fate is still uncertain.

Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon (12) leads his Wildcats into Sack Lake City to take on the Utah Utes in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon (12) leads his Wildcats into Sack Lake City to take on the Utah Utes in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

A fair critique of advanced statistics is that they don't take into account a team's growth. College teams change dramatically across the course of a season, and sometimes those changes can mean everything. New players, schemes, and approaches can cause a team which has been underperforming to suddenly meet expectations. When that kind of shift happens, the team can defy the advanced metric expectations and bring on the big upsets. In addition to the usual analysis, this week we'll take a look at the Utes' performance week-to-week and see if any trends stand out.

First, a word about the metric. Yards per play efficiency is a statistic of my own design, which compares a teams' performance over the course of a game to the opponents average. A score of 0 would mean that the opponent performed exactly at their season average, a positive score means the Utes performed better than the opponent usually permitted, and a negative score means the Utes underperformed. Because of the lack of FBS competition, Idaho State is not included in these numbers. The dark red line is the line of best fit to represent the direction the Utes are headed in.


Passing defense is on the left here, rushing defense on the right. The Utes have a slight trend upwards in pass defense, and a slight trend downwards in rush defense. Neither of these slopes are very steep, and they are likely explained by outlier performances early in the season (in rush defense against Fresno) and later in the season (in pass defense against Stanford). Without more data, it's hard to have a lot of certainty here, but the Utes have not performed terribly well defending the run over the last three weeks, and against an Arizona team which averages 4.64 YPC, Ute fan should hope to see that trend get reversed.

Utes D


Two more mostly flat lines suggest that the ups and downs of the Utes' offense have had more to do with the defenses they've faced than with some significant change in performance. An exception is the last two passing games, which have acted to reverse a steep downward slope on passing game efficiency (the blue line is the trend without the last two games). Oregon was the first above-average effort in conference play, and the Utes also had an excellent day throwing the football against Stanford, despite final stats that weren't gaudy. This change coincides with a shift in scheme for the Utes; more two back sets have improved pass protection, and Travis Wilson seems to be doing a better job of stepping up into pressure to make throws. With such a small data set, this shift might be a mirage.

These data sets are small, and don't show changes so significant that we can really call them a trend. However, the sudden shift upwards in the pass game is promising, and the Utes recent struggles to deliver in the run game are concerning. The best way to get a read on whether these are trends or outliers we are looking at is to test the Utah team against the balanced, solid team coming into Salt Lake City. We'll know more about the new look offense after we see how Wilson does against Scooby Wright and an aggressive Wildcat D.

Advanced Stats Primer- Arizona @ Utah:

The last few weeks, the Utes have faced teams which excelled in one area and had exposed weaknesses in other aspects of the game. ASU and Oregon have both struggled to field a top shelf defense, and Stanford's placekicking and offensive woes are well documented. The Wildcats are jacks-of-all-trades, solid and dangerous in every area. That's not to say they haven't earned their top 20 ranking, just that they come about it differently than the teams Utah has been up against lately.


Offense (RK)

Defense (RK)

Spc.T (RK)

Overall (RK)


Utah Last Week

-.22 (75)

10.31 (11)

5.37 (2)

15.46 (27)

13.3 (29)

Utah This Week

1.1 (72)

10.16 (12)

4.84 (2)

16.11 (21)

13.9 (28)


12.1 (24)

1.73 (48)

.64 (51)

14.46 (30)

14.0 (30)

These numbers show a team with no real weakness and no devastating strength. The Utes' elite special teams and defense are a clear edge for the Utes, while the gap between Utah's struggling offense and Arizona's efficient one nearly makes up for the difference. FPI gives Utah a 57.5% chance to win this game.

F/+ Rankings:




Special Teams
























The benefits of balance are readily apparent in these numbers. Despite not ranking in the top 25 in any area, the Wildcats' balance pushes them to 16th overall in FEI. S&P+ is not so kind to either team, but we're used to that at this point. S&P+ devalues the PAC 12 because it doesn't weight strength of schedule.

There Will Be Sacks:

The Utes and Wildcats both excel at pressuring the QB, particularly on passing downs. The Utes generate a sack on 16.3% of passing downs, while the Wildcats get a sack 14.3% of the time. These numbers are good for first and second in the country. Neither team has been great at protecting the quarterback, but the Utes' allowed passing down sack rate of 6.4% (47th) is much better than the Wildcats. Arizona allows their quarterback to be sacked on 8.7% of his passing down dropbacks, good for the 84th spot in the country.

The advantage in this battle lies with the Utes. Scooby Wright has been impressive, but he's more or less the only significant source of sacks for the Wildcats. The Utes have been led by Nate Orchard (who is 7 sacks away from Terrell Suggs' season record), but generate sacks from all around the front 7. This advantage in havoc rate may be what decides the ballgame.

Vegas and Massey:

Massey's aggregate of polls and computer rankings tend to favor Arizona, who ranks 22nd to the Utes 24th. Vegas isn't buying it, however, and opened the Utes as 3.5 point favorites at home. Over the course of the last week, the line has pushed in favor of the Utes to -4.

Stat-Head Prediction:

Another week, another tight game in the advanced stats. The Utes' opponent this week is a potent, balanced squad capable of making explosive plays on offense, defense, and special teams. They lack an elite unit, however, and the Utes bring two to the table. When I add what I've seen watching the games to the statistical evidence, I see a two-game improvement in passing performance that's real and sustainable. I expect the Utes to put up points against the Wildcats both through the air and on the ground.

Meanwhile, the Arizona offense has struggled against physical D lines and aggressive pass rushes, and they haven't played a defense this season who is as disruptive as the Utes. I think we'll see a surprising number of points from Utah and their first two-score win in the PAC 12.

30-20 Utes