Their defense can make it very difficult for you. You’ve got to make sure your quarterback is making the right decisions and seeing the whole field. —Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez, on Utah
SALT LAKE CITY — When Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez looks at film of Utah’s 2017 football team, he sees a lot that looks familiar.
And that is a bit unsettling as Arizona prepares to take on the No. 23-ranked Utes this Friday night in Tucson.
“I would rather not go up against a similar offense to ours,” he said. “If they just had a big, old slug at quarterback, maybe it would be better. But he is very athletic. He can run and reminds me a lot of Brandon Dawkins.”
The redshirt junior has 251 yards rushing and 422 yards passing. He has four throwing touchdowns and five rushing scores. He’s got a quarterback rating of 143.89, while Utah’s Tyler Huntley has a rating of 149. Huntley has completed 80 of 111 passes for 868 yards and five touchdowns. He also has 212 yards rushing with three running touchdowns.
Dynamic quarterbacks will certainly be a factor in Friday’s game, but what makes it intriguing is whether Utah’s defense, ranked second against the run among Division I teams, can stop Arizona’s bruising running backs.
Not only do the Wildcats have the No. 6 rushing offense in the country, Utah has historically struggled against the Wildcat run game.
In last year’s game, which Utah won 36-23, Arizona edged Utah in passing yards, but the Ute defense held the Wildcats to 127 rushing yards. The real key was that Utah’s defense earned three interceptions against Dawkins.
“Every year is different,” Rodriguez said of why the Wildcats have had success with the run game against Utah. “Last year wasn’t as good. When we did, our guys did a really good job up front, and we got some big plays. We’re going to need that going forward.” He said big plays open up the field and give their offense options.
Rodriguez, who relies on 17 freshmen this season, said Utah also has a lot of new faces. The Wildcats are hoping their leading pass rusher, Deandre' Miller, is back for Friday's game.
“He was our best pass rusher, most experienced linebacker, probably one of our top defensive guys. We’ve missed him for a few weeks. I don’t know if he’ll be available this week or not, but he’s worked really hard and he’s in great shape, he just hasn’t practiced. Hopefully he may practice a little bit this week.”
Freshman linebacker Tony Fields is leading the team in tackles with 12 solo and five assisted. He also has one sack.
“We’re not really surprised,” Rodriguez said of Fields’ contributions. “We thought when we signed him he was an athletic guy and had a great feel for the game. He’s a competitive guy; he’s a quick learner. It’s been fun to watch him.”
Utah’s defense, he said, is as stout as ever.
“Their defense can make it very difficult for you,” Rodriguez said. “You’ve got to make sure your quarterback is making the right decisions and seeing the whole field.”
He said not only is Utah running on a more up-tempo, unpredictable offense, the Utes also are more athletic.
“This is the fastest and most athletic, particularly on defense, that I have seen,” he said. “They are well-coached and always play hard. It will always be a physical game against Utah.”
While Utah’s defense can be relied on to be “stout and physical” every year, he points out that Utah’s special teams is always a wildcard. While the Utes are tied for the most field goals in the country with Matt Gay’s 11, it’s the unexpected twists Rodriguez is worried about.
“They always throw some trick stuff at you,” he said.
Rodriguez said Huntley will be a tough challenge for the Wildcat defense.
“You might have a guy right there in position to make a tackle and he can make you miss or run by you,” he said of Huntley. “And he can make all of the throws too. They will play fast, and for both teams, the preseason work will be beneficial because of the similar styles we run.”
Odds and Ends: The Wildcat roster includes Utah native Maisen Knight, an offensive lineman who graduated from Judge Memorial High in 2015. He went to Ventura (California) College where he earned All-Conference honors before he transferred to Arizona this year.