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Opponent Preview: Arizona’s Offense

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NCAA Football: Arizona at UCLA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Utah hopes to snap a four game losing streak against Rich Rodriguez and the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday night. In order to accomplish that goal, Utah will need to stop Arizona’s offense, something they have struggled to do in the past four meetings. Here’s a look at this year’s edition of the Wildcat offense.

Arizona is typically a high powered offense, as Rich Rodriguez’s offenses usually are, however this season Arizona is merely a middle of the road Pac-12 offense. The Wildcats average 443 yards per game placing them 6th in the Pac-12 and 29.2 points per game ranking 7th in the conference. Their rushing game, which has always plagued Utah, remains strong, putting up 246 yards per game on the ground. Their passing offense has struggled, as they have gone through quarterbacks at the same rate Utah has gone through centers, averaging only 196 yards passing per game, ranking them 10th in the conference.

Much like the Arizona defense has struggled to get off the field on third downs, the offense has struggled to convert on third downs this season. The Wildcats rank last in the conference in third down conversions at 34.3%. Arizona has struggled to gain yardage on early downs putting themselves in 3rd and long situations frequently. Utah will need to continue that trend and force Arizona to rely on their unproven quarterback to throw the ball.

Quarterback

Who is Arizona’s unproven quarterback? At the moment it appears to be true freshman Khalil Tate. Arizona opened the season with junior Anu Soloman, but lost him to a knee injury after just the first week of the season. Sohomore Brandon Dawkins stepped up and played well after Solman went down, but Dawkins suffered bruised ribs last week against UCLA and is listed as questionable.

It’s possible Dawkins will play on Saturday, and could even start, but I expect to see a lot of Tate considering the injury situation and the fact Rodriguez probably wouldn’t burn Tate’s redshirt year for just half of last week’s loss. So what do we know about Tate based on his limited game experience?

Like all Arizona quarterbacks, Tate can run the ball. Tate is mobile and is not shy to initiate contact, rushing 15 times last week for 79 yards. Throwing the ball, Tate did well, completing 5 of 9 pass attempts for 72 yards and 2 touchdowns. The kid has talent, but is still raw and probably a bigger threat with his legs right now than with his arm. If Tate does make the start on Saturday, he will be the second freshman to make his first collegiate start at Rice -Eccles this season, the first being USC’s Sam Darnold.

Running Back

Utah has struggled to stop Arizona’s running game in recent year’s and the Wildcats have again been able to move the ball well on the ground this season. Quarterback Brandon Dawkins is actually the teams leading rusher with 435 yards and 7 touchdowns on 49 attempts. The top running back is junior Nick Wilson, who has had success against Utah the past two seasons. Wilson also has 49 carries and is second on the team with 273 yards and 3 touchdowns.

The good news for Utah is, Wilson is unlikely to play on Saturday with a knee injury and Dawkins will probably be limited by his bruised ribs. The next leading rusher, freshman J.J. Taylor, broke his ankle against Washington. Needless to say Arizona is thin at the running back position this week. Expect to see Tyrell Johnson and Zach Green split the carries. Johnson is a converted receiver and has 23 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown this season, while Green has 20 carries for 84 yards and no touchdowns.

Receiver

On the receiving end of passes this season, sophomore Shun Brown has emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Wildcats. With seniors Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey and Nate Phillips on the roster, Brown was not expected to be leading the team in receiving, but he does, with 17 receptions for 263 yards and two touchdowns. Shun is small, 5-8 175 lbs., but is a tough and well rounded receiver with good hands.

Grant, Griffey and Phillips have all been productive as well this season, with each having at least 12 receptions. Phillips and Grant are both small like Shun, with Grant standing 5-9 and Phillips 5-7. Griffey has the size at 6-3 209 lbs., and is also a threat to stretch the field, leading the receivers with 16.42 yards per reception.

Outlook

If there is a team this season that has struggled with injuries more than Utah, it’s Arizona. The Wildcats have been a tough opponent for Utah to figure out since Rich Rodriguez arrived, but this weekend’s game provides as good of an opportunity as they are likely to get against Arizona. Injuries have depleted Arizona’s quarterbacks, running backs and offensive line. On top of it, Utah will likely see a true freshman making his first start in Rice-Eccles. I like Utah’s chances in this one and think they break the four game losing streak against Arizona.