SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham had plenty of ways to define Saturday night’s game against Arizona at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
At 4-6 overall, however, he simply points out it's “do-or-die” time for the Utes in terms of securing bowl eligibility for the 10th consecutive year. Whittingham also noted that his players' “backs are against the wall in every sense” and “there is no margin for error.”
Indeed. A loss to the Wildcats or a setback next week at Colorado will evaporate all hope of going bowling. As expected, Whittingham said the focus now is all on Arizona. It’s a case of first things first, after all.
“This is a group of guys who will fight and fight to the bitter end,” Whittingham explained. “I expect that we will see their best ball on Saturday.”
The urgent situation comes on Senior Night when 25 Utes will play their final home game. The cast of departing players includes high-profile standouts like defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, return specialist Reggie Dunn and running back John White, as well as cornerback Ryan Lacy, wide receiver DeVonte Christopher, defensive lineman Dave Kruger, guard Sam Brenner, center Tevita Stevens, punter Sean Sellwood, wide receiver Luke Matthews, defensive backs Moe Lee and Reggie Topps, as well as several other contributors.
“We’d like to send them out of Rice-Eccles Stadium as winners,” Whittingham said in Utah’s weekly press release. “This has been a great senior class that has won a lot of games for our program and we will miss their leadership and playing ability.”
The seniors will be honored in pregame ceremonies.
“It is of utmost importance to us to send the seniors out the right way and have them go out on a positive note,” Whittingham said.
Once the ball is in the air, it’s all about finding ways to get them a victory. Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said the Utes are determined to execute and come out with great energy and passion.
“That’s all it is, too. There’s no magic, secret formula to it,” Johnson said. “Bottom line is you’ve got a chance to send the seniors out the right way and you’ve got to make sure you find a way to get it done.”
The key, he noted, isn’t all that complicated.
“We’ve got to focus on what we do and try to do it well,” Johnson said.
Utah is coming off a disappointing 34-15 setback at Washington a week ago. The loss put the Utes in their current predicament.
“Plain and simple, we just need to play better,” said quarterback Travis Wilson, who threw for only 55 yards against the Huskies. “We couldn’t really afford to have that happen but it happened and we’ve got to make sure we finish this thing strong.”
It won’t be easy. Arizona sports a balanced offense that ranks second in the Pac-12 with 526 yards per game. Running back Ka’Deem Carey had a conference-record 366 yards rushing in last week’s 56-31 win over Colorado. Quarterback Matt Scott and wide receiver Austin Hill also rank among national statistical leaders.
Although the Wildcats will present quite a challenge for Utah’s defense, they'll also put pressure on the Utes’ offense. Whittingham firmly believes that the best defense is to keep Arizona’s point-producing playmakers on the sidelines.
“We're going to have to keep the football away from them with our offense,” Whittingham said. “That is probably going to be as big a factor as anything.”
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, meanwhile, is expecting a battle.
“We have a big challenge this week. I told the team (Sunday) that this will be one of the most physical and biggest teams we’ve played this year,” Rodriguez said. “It’ll be a tough environment and we will be tested both mentally and physically on Saturday night.”
EXTRA POINTS: Utah leads the all-time series with Arizona, 20-15-2. ... The Utes defeated the Wildcats 34-21 last year in Tucson, Ariz. They also won the most recent meeting in Salt Lake City, 27-24 in 2005. ... Utah is expecting its 18th consecutive sellout at Rice-Eccles Stadium.