Utah Utes football: Strength against strength between Utes and Wildcats
Tom Smart, Deseret News
TUCSON, Ariz. — Utah and Arizona have gone through a rough season, the Utes once the Pac-12 schedule started, the Wildcats pretty much the whole way through.
But when these two teams meet on Saturday, they actually have something still left to play for: bowl eligibility.
OK, so it's a longshot for Arizona. The Wildcats have to win all four of their remaining games to get to the postseason.
It'll be a little easier for Utah. The Utes have to win just two of their final four games to get into a bowl for the ninth straight season.
Either way, there's a lot riding on a game in the desert between two middling-so-far teams.
"We owe it to everyone else who's been here before us to carry on the tradition and get to a bowl game and win that bowl game," Utah linebacker Chaz Walker said. "It's just not for us but for everyone that's played before us."
Everyone that played before this group of Utes got to do it in the Mountain West Conference. This year's team has found the switch to the Pac-12 a little tougher.
Utah (4-4, 1-4) opened the season with a couple of wins wrapped around a relatively close conference loss to Southern California. Once the bulk of the Pac-12 season started, the Utes struggled, losing to Washington, Arizona State and California, with a win over Pittsburgh mixed in.
Utah finally broke the Pac-12 seal last week with a 27-8 win over Oregon State, getting another sturdy effort from its defense and a turnover-free game from quarterback Jon Hays, who had thrown seven interceptions since replacing injured starter Jordan Wynn a month ago.
"It was good to get our first Pac-12 win," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "It took a little longer than we had hoped, but we got it. I thought we played well from start to finish."
The Utes will need another effort like that against Arizona, despite its record.
The Wildcats (2-6, 1-5) got the season off to an awful start, following a win over Northern Arizona with five straight losses that ended up costing coach Mike Stoops his job.
Arizona rallied after Stoops' firing and a bye week to rout UCLA, then played well against Washington before fading in a 42-31 loss last week.
"We started out good, 10-0 at the end of the first quarter, so we thought we were doing really good," Arizona linebacker Derek Earls said. "(We) just need to keep it up, we had our little falls, which we can't have. We have to keep playing how we're playing from the beginning and not fall down toward the end."
This matchup will come down to strength against strength: Utah's defense against Arizona's high-flying offense.
The Utes aren't particularly effective on offense, thanks in part to a slew of injuries, but have the Pac-12's best on defense, allowing 325.6 yards per game — good for 22nd in the nation. Utah also is second in scoring defense, despite giving up more than 30 points three times this season, and is 11th nationally in rushing defense.
"They're good up front, they stack the box a lot, play a lot of man coverage," Arizona interim coach Tim Kish said "It'll be important for our receivers to get open; it's going to cause us to look at that run-pass combination again for us offensively."
Utah's task on Saturday will be to stop one of the country's most prolific passing teams.
Wildcats quarterback Nick Foles is the nation's leading passer with over 32 completions per game and has thrown for 2,934 yards and 20 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He gets to throw to one of the best receiving corps around, led by Juron Criner, who has 47 catches for 559 yards and eight touchdowns.
Arizona's ground game isn't much and the defense has been flailing a bit, but those Wildcats sure can pass.
"They've got a lot of skill," Whittingham said. "They play with four wide receivers about 50-60 percent of the time and that's a challenge for our secondary. You're going to see some great matchups this week."
And one team a step closer to its goal of becoming bowl eligible.
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