We have struggled with them. It all stems to the games we lost that we did not do a good job defending the run. So that is going to be job No. 1 this week —Kyle Whittingham
TUCSON — Seventy miles from Tucson, amid the rubble of Tombstone's Boothill Graveyard, rests the remains of Three Fingered Jack Dunlop, Billy Clanton and other assorted desperadoes.
This is dangerous country, and the Utah Utes know it. They’ve twice been ambushed in Tucson by the Arizona Wildcats, twice more in Salt Lake since joining the Pac-12. It’s that team, as much as any, that has deep-sixed Utah’s hopes of winning its first South Division championship. Colorado has often been a problem, too, because that game comes at the end of the schedule. But the Wildcats have always inflicted damage that lingers.
Which brings us to Friday’s conference opener for Utah. If USC, Oregon, Stanford or Washington is the opponent, the Utes know what they’re facing. But with Arizona, there’s always a mild jolt of surprise. The Wildcats usually end up covering enough ground to reach to Nogales, if they want. In 2012-2014 they combined for over 900 rushing yards.
"We have struggled with them,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It all stems to the games we lost that we did not do a good job defending the run. So that is going to be job No. 1 this week."
Realistically, nobody goes through conference play undefeated. But Utah has never won a division championship because it tends to lose focus against lesser teams. That “lesser” team isn’t always Arizona — the Wildcats won the South Division in 2014 — but often enough.
In 2011, with USC ineligible, Utah came within a win of the championship game, but lost to Cal (4-5 in conference) and Colorado (2-7). The next year Arizona (4-5) beat Utah 34-24 in Salt Lake.
The 2013 Utes (2-7) lost to almost everybody, but failures against Oregon State (4-5), Arizona (4-5) and Washington State (4-5) were particularly disheartening. The next year 2-7 Washington State landed a knockout punch. In 2015, Arizona (3-6) was back, beating the Utes in two overtimes in Tucson. Last year Cal (3-6) and Oregon (2-7) disrupted Utah’s plan.
So it’s not entirely an Arizona problem for Utah, but most years, the Wildcats shouldn’t be a problem at all. Since Utah joined the Pac-12, Arizona has had only one winning season in conference; Utah has had three. This summer the Wildcats garnered fewer preseason votes than any other team.
Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley says there has been no special emphasis this week on beating lower rated teams.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Huntley said. “You just got to look at every game as a regular game and know you’ve got to go out and perform.”
Meanwhile, Whittingham gives little credence to the theory that Utah can exploit certain inexperienced Arizona players.
"As far as their new players, everyone in the country has new players and a new look to their roster,” Whittingham said. “I never put any stock into someone being a young football team. I think that is way overblown and I don't even pay attention to it."
As good as the scores look for Arizona in 2017 (125 combined points against Northern Arizona and UTEP), the Utes bring a more diverse offense than usual. Huntley says “a great amount” of the playbook hasn’t yet been revealed.
“I think there’s only been very little of our offense. We haven’t given up our whole playbook yet,” agreed receiver Samson Nacua.
So the Utes are in full game mode — though they probably need to be in something more than that. If they mess up on the front end of the schedule, November might not matter.
By most indicators, the nationally ranked Utes should win this one. But things can deteriorate quickly. Just look at accounts of the infamous “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” Some say Wyatt Earp was dutifully enforcing the law against renegade cowboys, who were scaring the townsfolk and threatening the law. Others say Earp and friends shot down the Clantons when their arms were raised in surrender.
In that context, nobody knows exactly why the Utes struggle so much against lower-end teams in the conference. Things just turn crazy and trouble starts.
History can sort it out.