Utah football: Utes looking for Pac-12 road breakthrough
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
TUCSON, Ariz. — Road success isn't foreign to the Utah Utes this season. They fared well in non-conference victories over BYU (54-10) and Pittsburgh (26-14). Pac-12 play, however, has been a different story.
Utah is 0-2 in conference contests away from Salt Lake City. The setbacks include a spirited 23-14 loss to USC on Sept. 10 and a 34-10 blowout against California in San Francisco two weeks ago.
The latter, said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, was his team's "poorest performance" of the season.
The Utes, however, bounced back to win their first Pac-12 game — defeating Oregon State 27-8 last week at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Now comes another historical hurdle.
"We've had tough opponents. But you know you need to win on the road and that's probably the next step for us — to win a Pac-12 game on the road," Whittingham said. "In our evolution in this conference that would be a logical next step in the process."
Prevailing away from home, he added, isn't a mental block or anything like that. It's just circumstances.
And speaking of such, there's quite a bit riding on today's game at Arizona Stadium. Both the Utes (4-4, 1-4) and Wildcats (2-6, 1-5) are in dire need of a victory, especially in terms of achieving bowl eligibility.
Utah has some wiggle room, but Arizona doesn't. The Wildcats are one loss away from a guaranteed losing season and no chance of going bowling.
The Utes, meanwhile, need two more wins in a season-ending schedule that includes home games against UCLA (Nov. 12) and Colorado (Nov. 25), as well as road dates at Arizona and Washington State (Nov. 19).
"We love playing at home. We love playing in front of this crowd, great people here in Utah," said quarterback Jon Hays. "But we've got to handle our business on the road. So we're just excited to get an opportunity to do that."
Like Whittingham, Hays doesn't have a solid explanation for Utah's lack of Pac-12 success on the road.
"It's all football really. It's all a football game," he said. "You can win or lose any Saturday."
To succeed this time around, the Utes have to deal with a couple of situations. They'll need to keep Arizona quarterback Nick Foles and targets like all-conference wide receiver Juron Criner in check.
"They're great. Tops in the nation (in passing offense) actually. He's a great quarterback and he's a great receiver," said linebacker Chaz Walker. "We've just got to man up and play great defense and do our jobs. When we have a chance to make a play we've got to make it because (Foles) doesn't give you many opportunities."
The Arizona quarterback has completed 70 percent of his passes this season and has 20 touchdown tosses.
On the other side of the ball, Utah's offense faces a run-heavy defense with similarities to Arizona's old "Deseret Swarm" flex scheme.
"When they load the box up we've got to be able to throw the ball," Whittingham said, while noting it's something he anticipates from the Wildcats' defense.
"There's a good chance of that. I mean when you get 280 yards of offense and 205 come from John White, that would be one logical move to make — to load the box," Whittingham said. "But everyone is different philosophically. Some guys like to stay in their base defense, regardless."
Oregon State opted to do so for the most part last week, allowing White to rack up some big numbers. Arizona's defense, though, has struggled against defending the run. The Wildcats are 10th in the Pac-12 in doing so, giving up 174 yards per game.
It remains to be seen, though, if White will once again get as many carries as he did last week in getting 35 against the Beavers.
White wouldn't mind if he did.
"They've been giving me the ball way more than usual but I'm loving it," he said. "If they put the ball in my hands it means they trust me. So I'm ready to go."
As for facing a defense that has been weak against the run, White insists his approach is no different.
"I go after every opponent the same way. I lick my chops every game," White said. "I'm just ready for every game. I expect a big game out of everyone in each and every game."
EXTRA POINTS: Utah leads the all-time series with Arizona by a 19-15-2 margin, including an 8-8-2 mark in Tucson. ... Whittingham said receiver DeVonte Christopher is not 100 percent yet after returning from an ankle injury. He joked that Christopher was more like 89.5 percent and could possibly be in the 90s by game time. ... Whittingham also acknowledged it's a distinct possibility that running back Thretton Palamo could be moved to defense next season. ... It's Arizona's homecoming game.
Utes on the air
Utah (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12)
at Arizona (2-6, 1-5)
Saturday, 5 p.m. MT
At Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Ariz.
TV: KJZZ Radio: 700 AM
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