Utah finally got over the Pac-12 hump and did it in the biggest way possible. After vanquishing Stanford, the Utes hit arguably the hardest section of their schedule over the next four games, taking on Arizona, USC and Oregon on the road and Arizona State at home. The slate begins with Arizona this weekend, and Utah will hope to take advantage of a Wildcats team that has lost two in a row against Washington and USC. Will Utah be able to continue its Pac-12 momentum on the road? Or will Arizona right the ship and get its first conference win of the season? Here’s a position-by-position look at this week’s matchup and which team will have the edge heading into Saturday’s game:
Travis Wilson was phenomenal against a tough Stanford defense, completing 23 of 34 passes for two touchdowns, 234 yards and an interception. Granted, Stanford’s defensive backs aren’t the most talented in the Pac-12, but Wilson was consistent against a tough and experienced Cardinal front seven. His rapport with Dres Anderson continues to flourish, and the duo have become one of the best offensive tandems in the conference. The only flaw in Wilson’s game is his tendency to turn over the ball in the second half against Pac-12 games. He threw a pick in the third quarter against Stanford and although Utah held on to win, nine of his 10 interceptions this season have come against conference opponents in the second half.
Senior B.J. Denker has been the man behind center for the Wildcats and had an incredible game against USC despite a 38-31 loss. Denker completed 28 of 44 passes for 363 yards and four touchdowns. However, Denker was awful against Washington, completing only 14 of 35 passes for 119 yards, two interceptions and a rushing touchdown. Rich Rodriguez slowly has entrusted Denker with more passing attempts, but he’s generally been relied on more for his rushing ability, scoring six touchdowns on the ground and six touchdowns in the air.
Bubba Poole grabbed the lead in the running back competition Saturday, churning out 111 yards on the ground along with 75 receiving yards out of the backfield against a tough Stanford defensive front. Poole has 441 yards and a touchdown this year. The Utes have quality depth behind Poole moving forward as Lucky Radley had 31 yards of his own last week and has 169 yards and two touchdowns so far this season. Although Kelvin York didn’t play against Stanford, he provides another option and has 138 yards and a touchdown of his own in 2013.
Junior Ka’Deem Carey is unquestionably the focal point of Arizona’s offense. After sitting out the season opener for disciplinary issues, Carey has been on a roll, rushing for more than 125 yards in each of the previous four games. The junior has racked up 569 yards and five touchdowns in 2013, is second in the Pac-12 in rushing and averaging 142 yards per game. Carey also had 204 yards against the Utes last year, setting the stage for a long day if Utah can’t keep him bottled up.
Anderson continues to deliver for the Utes and quietly is dominating in a conference full of playmakers. After scoring on an acrobatic catch in the first quarter against Stanford, Anderson is now fifth in the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game with 99 and has 592 yards and five touchdowns overall. Most importantly, Anderson has three touchdowns and 289 yards receiving against Oregon State, UCLA and Stanford combined, proving he shows up when it counts. Poole continues to be a reception machine out of the backfield, and Sean Fitzgerald and Anthony Denham provide second and third options behind Anderson.
Arizona’s offense is predicated heavily on the running game, and no receiver has really separated himself for the Wildcats in 2013. The receiving duties have been split between the trio of Nate Phillips, Garic Wharton and Samajie Grant for the most part so far. Wharton is the oldest of that group as a junior and has 190 yards receiving this season, with his only two touchdowns coming against USC last week. Phillips and Grant are both freshmen but have combined for 251 yards and two touchdowns themselves. Carey also provides value in the passing game.
Utah’s offensive line held up extremely well against Stanford, surrendering only one sack to an experienced and physical front seven. Utah ranks fifth in the Pac-12 with eight sacks surrendered. Four of those have come against conference opponents, but the Utes line rebounded well after allowing three sacks against UCLA.
Arizona has one of the better offensive lines so far in the Pac-12, giving up only seven sacks, tied for second in the conference with Oregon State and Stanford. Denker was sacked twice last week against USC and twice against Washington, a good sign for a Utah team leading the conference in sacks with 20.
Defensive line and linebackers
Utah has continued to dominate up front with pressure from its front seven, skyrocketing to the top of the conference with 20 total sacks. Nate Orchard was a beast against Stanford, racking up two sacks and two tackles for loss, bringing the Utes’ total to a staggering 40 tackles for loss on top of the 20 sacks. The Utes have 11 players with at least one sack and 14 with at least one tackle for loss. Led by Orchard, Tenny Palepoi, Trevor Reilly and Jacoby Hale, Utah should have even more success against Arizona this week.
Arizona has had a hard time getting to the quarterback this season, ranking last in sacks with six. Even more alarming, the Wildcats have zero sacks against Pac-12 opponents and half of their sacks came against Northern Arizona in the season opener. Tevin Hood and Sione Tuihalamaka are the guys to watch for the Wildcats. The duo have combined for one sack and 6.5 tackles for loss.
The Utes pass defense held up well enough against Stanford, despite surrendering 246 yards and having trouble containing receiver Ty Montgomery. Utah ranks 10th out of 12 teams in pass defense in the conference and has surrendered 10 touchdowns through the air, tied for eighth worse in the Pac-12. Luckily for the Utes, Arizona’s offense is predicated on the running game, and the pass rush has helped disguise some deficiencies on the back end.
The Wildcats’ biggest strength on defense this season has been in the passing game. Led by senior corner Shaquille Richardson and junior safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant, the Wildcats rank first in the Pac-12 in holding opposing passers to only completing 56.3 percent of their attempts per game. Arizona has seven interceptions this season and has held opposing teams to only five touchdowns this season through the air, tied for second in the Pac-12 with Washington.
Travis Wilson will have to avoid turning over the ball against arguably the toughest pass defense he’ll face this season. The Utes will have to contain Carey and keep him out of the end zone. He’ll get his yardage, but Utah will have to stop him from scoring more than once. The difference will be Denker’s shortcomings in the passing game. If Utah can pressure him and get a few turnovers, it should take this one on the road 31-27.