Nick Wagner, Deseret News
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham meets Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez at midfield after an NCAA college football game in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2016. Utah battled back from a first-half deficit to defeat Arizona 36-23.
Historically, when we've held them to 150 or less rushing we win and when we don't we lose. —Kyle Whittingham

TUCSON, Ariz. — From 2012-15, Arizona ran past Utah. The Wildcats racked up 1,076 yards on the ground in posting four consecutive victories over the Utes.

The streak was snapped last year at Rice-Eccles Stadium where Utah held Arizona to just 127 yards rushing en route to a 36-23 victory.

On Friday, the teams meet again and as usual a ground battle is expected to ensue. It’s marquee worthy.

Arizona enters the game as the Pac-12’s top rushing team. The Wildcats are averaging 328 yards per outing. The 21st-ranked Utes, meanwhile, counter with the conference’s No. 1 run defense. They’re giving up just 49.3 yards on the ground.

“That will be the biggest matchup and the most critical to the outcome of the game,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.

It certainly has been since Rich Rodriguez became Arizona’s head coach in 2012. The Wildcats rushed for 320 yards against the Utes that year. That was followed by final totals of 300, 298 and 158.

“Historically, when we’ve held them to 150 or less rushing we win and when we don’t we lose,” said Whittingham, who added that Arizona runs the ball as well as any team in the country — including the academies.

The Wildcats ran for 506 yards in their 62-24 season-opening win over Northern Arizona. They rushed for 152 in a 19-16 loss to Houston and amassed 326 in last week’s 63-16 victory at UTEP.

“I’ve got a bunch of guys who love football. It’s fun to be around them,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, whose squad has already played 24 freshmen (14 true) this season. “. . . We’d like to be 3-0 instead of 2-1. We’ve got to play our best football. I’m confident that our guys will have a great week of practice.”

Junior quarterback Brandon Dawkins, who leads Arizona with 422 yards passing and 251 yards rushing, directs an offense that has racked up 1,467 yards in three games.

“It’s always scary. RichRod does a heck of a job with his offense and it keeps on rolling,” said Utah linebackers coach Justin Ena. “It’s a very potent offense.”

Ena added that it’ll be fun and a challenge for the Utes to see what they can do. They enter the contest as the Pac-12 leaders in total defense (246 ypg).

“It’s option football — making sure that you’re taking care of your job and if you’ve got 11 guys doing what they’re supposed to do you should be fine,” Ena said. “But if there’s a breakdown you can pay the price.”

Cornerback Julian Blackmon acknowledged that it’s all about stopping the run first. He said it begins with pressure up front on the line. Starters Bradlee Anae, Kylie Fitts, Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi are backed by a deep pool of reserves. They open things up for the linebackers and secondary to succeed.

In last Saturday’s 54-16 victory over San Jose State, Utah’s defense gave up 30 yards on 37 rushes. Shutting down the run also led to the Spartans converting on just 1 of 13 third-down situations.

Arizona, though, presents a different challenge — even if the Wildcats were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 preseason media poll.

“They’re a great team. They’ve got a lot of athletes, a lot of speed,” said safety Chase Hansen. “Pac-12 play starts. It’s kind of time to ramp it up a little bit and think of it more like a Super Bowl every game.”

EXTRA POINTS: Utah holds a 21-19-2 edge in the all-time series . . . Arizona has a 10-9-2 record against the Utes in Tucson . . . Opposing teams are averaging just 1.7 yards per carry against Utah . . . The Utes have their one and only bye next week . . . Stanford visits Rice-Eccles Stadium on Oct. 7.

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