The No. 23 Utah Utes (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12) will take on the Arizona Wildcats (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12) to open Pac-12 Conference play for two Pac-12 South teams. The Utes are 2-4 against the Wildcats since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. Here are the three keys to the game for Utah to come away 1-0 in the Pac-12.
1. Stop the run
This game is a meeting between the best rushing offense and the best rushing defense in the Pac-12. The Wildcats are averaging 328.0 rushing yards per game (No. 1 in the Pac-12) and 6.52 yards per carry (No. 2 in the Pac-12). They a Utah defense that is giving 49.33 rushing yards per game (No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 2 in the nation) and 1.66 yards per carry (No. 1 in the Pac-12 and nation). This strength versus strength matchup will go a long way to decide this game. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham addressed the Arizona rushing attack in his weekly press conference. In Utah’s four losses to Arizona, the Wildcats have put up 298 rushing yards on more on the ground in every win except for the 2015 game (when they put up 158 rushing yards but did average 4.65 yards per carry). In Utah’s one win over the Rich Rodriguez coached Wildcats, Arizona managed only 127 rushing yards with only 3.43 yards per carry. As mentioned previously, the Arizona offense leads the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game, but they are dead last in the conference passing yards per game (161.0 passing yards per game) and ninth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency (136.19 passer rating). In Arizona’s lone loss on the season, they only rushed for 152 yards and averaged 3.90 yards per carry and only one touchdown, compared to 416.0 rushing yards per game in wins on 7.43 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns in those two wins. If the Utah defense can slow the Arizona rushing attack and force Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins to throw, the Arizona offense may not be able to score a lot of points. Half of Arizona’s passing attempts on the season came in the loss to Houston, a game where Arizona managed only 16 points. Utah struggled in their losses against Arizona to stop run, especially the zone read plays that the Wildcats run so well. The Utah defense will need to be disciplined in this game with all the misdirection that Arizona utilizes in the running game. The Utah defense is stout against the run and is very athletic, but they have not faced an offense as potent as Arizona’s yet this season that presents the unique challenges of the Wildcats offense.
2. Limit the mistakes
Utah is 3-0, but they could have won each game more comfortably if not for turnovers, penalties, and red zone issues. The Utes are last in the Pac-12 in penalty yards with 94.0 yards per game and tied for last with 28 penalties on the season (9.3 penalties per game). Utah has also turned over the football six times (which ranked tied for No. 8 in the Pac-12). While this mark and the turnover margin are improvements from last season, good teams should not average two turnovers per game. The Utes rank No. 12 in the Pac-12 in red zone touchdown percentage at 45.45 percent.
Arizona is a team that will make mistakes that cost them the game if they are allowed to play within their game plan. The Wildcats are tied for second in the Pac-12 with only three turnovers on the season. They are third in the Pac-12 in both penalty yards per game (45.3) and penalties per game (5.3). When they get into the red zone, they score touchdowns 84.62 percent of the time (No. 4 in the Pac-12). There is a chance to force some mistakes if you take away what Arizona wants to do. When Houston forced Arizona to throw more, the Wildcats had two turnovers (double the number of their other two games combined) and their lowest red zone scoring percentage (it was the only game they failed to score on a red zone trip and the only time they had to settle for a field goal).
Utah is the undefeated, ranked favorite in this game, but this is a road game. Making mistakes allows underdogs to hang around and helps them pull the upset. Arizona is the home underdog, so if the Utes have some similar errors to the prior three games, they could allow the Wildcats to stay in the game.
3. Score touchdowns in the red zone
This point kind of ties into the second key to the game, but it is worthy of getting its own point. When Utah lost as a road favorite at Cal last year, it was because they failed to score points on two red zone trips in a game they lost by five. When facing an explosive offense, touchdowns need to be scored in the red zone and not field goals to win the game. Utah has not had a problem scoring points in the red zone. They have scored on 19 of 21 trips (if you exclude the one trip where they kneeled to end the game against BYU), which is just over 90 percent of the time. The problem is they have struggled to score touchdowns, managing a touchdown in less than half of their red zone trips. This needs to be better against Arizona, a team who averages 47.0 points per game and scores a touchdown on almost 85 percent of red zone trips. Settling for field goals or coming away with no points in the red zone is a recipe for keeping Arizona in this game.
This is a game that Utah should win on paper (unless that paper belongs to ESPN’s FPI metric, which gives Arizona an almost 70 percent chance to win). The Utes are the better team, but they have also shown they are a sloppy team this season. They were good enough to overcome errors to beat non-Power Five opponents, but they cannot play with fire against a conference opponent. If the Utes play a clean, relatively mistake free game and slow the Arizona rushing attack, they will win by double-digits. However, if the Utes fail to score touchdowns in the red zone, turnover the football, and/or cannot stop the Wildcats fearsome rushing attack, this game will be close and could result in a loss.