Utah will try and rebound from last week’s tough loss against Cal, when it returns home to Salt Lake this weekend to take on another bottom tier Pac-12 defense. Arizona has not been known for their defensive prowess under Rich Rodriguez, but it hasn’t mattered much against the Utes, as Rich Rod is 4-0 against Utah since taking the Wildcats job. Despite this fact, Utah has a golden opportunity to get back on track against a dinged up Arizona team.
Arizona changed defensive coordinators in the winter bringing in Marcel Yates from Boise State. Under Yates, the Arizona defense has shown some signs of improvement, but still ranks as one of the worst defenses in the country, ranking 104th in total defense. The defense is undersized and opposing teams have been able to wear them out on the ground in the second half. The Wildcats are giving up 4.85 yards per carry in the second half as opposed to 4.06 yards per carry in the first half, in addition, 7 of the 11 rushing touchdowns Arizona has allowed this season came in the second half. Overall the Arizona rush defense ranks 88th in the country and 9th in the Pac-12, giving up 4.5 yards per carry.
While the rush defense hasn’t been anything to write home about, the biggest disappointment for the Wildcats is probably their pass coverage, where they rank 106th in the country and also 9th in the Pac-12 in pass defense. The Wildcat secondary has given up 1,375 yards through the air, allows opposing quarterbacks to complete 61.5% of their passes, and gives up 7.9 yards per pass.
A specific area of concern for the Wildcats is their third down defense, which up until last week, had been abysmal. Opponents are converting 48% of their thirds downs against the Wildcats leading to prolonged drives by opposing offenses. Last week against UCLA, Arizona did a much better job getting off the field, allowing the Bruins to convert on only 33% of 3rd downs. This will be an interesting area to watch this weekend, as Utah’s offense has struggled on third down, converting only 7 of 20 last week against a statistically weaker Cal defense. Whoever wins the third down battle will have a big advantage toward winning the game.
Nose tackle Parker Zellers is questionable for Saturday’s game. Zellers injured his knee against Hawaii and has not been able to get back. Ailua Fanene and Sani Fuimaono and Luca Bruno have rotated in to fill the void. Jack Banda and Justin Belkanp will also rotate along the defensive line. Banda, somewhat undersized at 6-3 247 lbs, leads the defensive lineman with 8 tackles.
Another big question mark for the Arizona defense is the status of “stud” linebacker DeAndre Miller. The “stud” linebacker is a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker used to rush the quarterback or drop into coverage depending on the situation. Miller was expected to be a main contributor this year, but was also injured in the Hawaii game and has also struggled to get back on the field. Junior John Kenny has stepped in to replace him and has 12 tackles. Seniors Cody Ippolito and Paul Magloire lead the linebacking group in experience and in tackles, combining for 59. Magloire is another undersized Arizona defensive player at 6-1 227 lbs., but led the Wildcats in tackles last season and is on the Bednarik Award watch list. The leading tackler is Demetrius Flannigan- Fowles with 27 tackles. Flannigan-Fowles playes the “bandit” position which is a linebacker/safety hybird, and also leads the team in interceptions with 2.
The secondary has struggled this season, but junior Dane Cruikshank has been solid with 16 tackles, 4 pass breakups and 1 interception. DaVonte Neal has 18 tackles and is an intriguing athlete, but has struggled at the other cornerback position this season, blowing coverages for big plays and struggling with his open field tackling. Jace Whittaker will also rotate in. Jarvis McCall switched from corner to safety this season with his bigger frame at 6-2, 203 lbs. and has done well with 14 tackles and an interception.
Utah has the talent to make Arizona’s defense struggle. Similar to last week, the Utes will face a team that struggles stopping the run but also gives up big plays through the air. Playing at home against a struggling secondary, I’d like to see Utah be aggressive on offense and take some shots down field. Even with the loss of J.J. Dielman for the season, Utah’s offensive line should be able to control the line of scrimmage with their size advantage and run the ball effectively.