You can make the case that Utah has had an advantage in talent and athleticism over each of its first three opponents, but the playing field begins to level out this week with the start of Pac-12 play.
The Utes go into Friday’s clash at Arizona knowing they could lose even if they play well, especially if they lose one particular position battle. Arizona (2-1) comes into this game ranked sixth in Football Bowl Subdivision at rushing with 328 yards per game, while Utah is second-best in defending the run nationally at 49 ypg.
“We pride ourselves on stopping the run, especially this year, so we do look forward to this team,” Utes defensive end Bradlee Anae said. “They’re a very good running team. That’s something we do look forward to, going against a really good team so we can test how good of a run stop defense we are.”
The Utes (3-0) won’t have to look far for reminders of Arizona’s capabilities. Until it won last year’s game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Arizona had won four consecutive games in the series, averaging 240.6 yards rushing per game against the Utes since Rich Rodriguez took over as Wildcats coach.
“Rich has got a great grasp of offensive scheme,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “He knows exactly what he wants to do. It starts with the run game. They run the read zone as well as anybody in the country. They’ve got a quarterback [Brandon Dawkins] who is an exceptional runner.”
A 6-foot-3, 210-pound redshirt junior, Dawkins has passed for 422 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 251 yards and five touchdowns through three games. In Arizona’s lone loss against Houston, Dawkins rushed for 26 yards.
“A running quarterback changes a lot just because you know you have to plaster and you have to guard guys for a lot longer because he can make plays with his feet and he’s looking down the field so then he can throw it at the same time,” Utah cornerback Julian Blackmon said. “We can’t really come off coverage. We’ve just got to really be disciplined with our defense.”
While the Utes have a wealth of first-hand experience against Arizona’s offense, the Wildcats defense will face a Utes offense with a decidedly different look than years past.
Sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley’s presence alone makes the Utes’ offense more dynamic — he has averaged 289.3 yards passing and 70.7 yards rushing in three games as the starter — but he has help.
Senior wide receiver Darren Carrington II, a graduate transfer from the University of Oregon, has 409 yards and four touchdowns receiving through three games. Four players, including Carrington, have caught passes of 20 yards or more in the new offensive system installed by first-year coordinator Troy Taylor.
“They’ve always been really athletic, but it’s a different scheme, of course,” Rodriguez said. “They’re spreading you out, making you defend the whole width of the field and using some tempo and obviously using some quarterback runs and quarterback zone reads. They’ve got a very athletic guy back there, and they’ve got some talented guys in the backfield and on the perimeter.They’re well-coached. Their scheme provides a lot of stress for your defense.”
The Utes’ new-look offense will likely play a big part if they are able to win in Arizona Stadium for the first time since 2011.
UTAH AT ARIZONA
At Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Ariz.
Kickoff • 8:30 p.m. MDT
TV • FS1
Radio • 700 AM, Sirius XM 84
Records • Utah 3-0, Arizona 2-1
Series history • Utah leads 21-19-2
Last meeting • Utah 36, Arizona 23 (2016)
About the Utes • Quarterback Tyler Huntley ranks 14th in FBS in completion percentage (72.1), and he has accounted for 76 percent of Utah’s offensive yards through three games. … Utah moved into The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time this season following last weekend’s win over San Jose State. Utah is ranked No.23 in the AP poll and No. 21 in the Coaches’ poll. … Kicker Matt Gay, a former Utah Valley University soccer player, leads all kickers in points (44) and ranks second in FBS. He has gone 11-for-11 on field goal attempts and has kicked the longest field goal in the country so far in college football this season (56 yards). … Redshirt freshman wide receiver Samson Nacua recorded a career-high 59 yards on seven catches against SJSU last week. Nacua is the team’s second-leading receiver behind Darren Carrington II.
About the Wildcats • Quarterback Brandon Dawkins went 18-for-21 for 155 yards passing with three touchdowns and no interceptions in his most recent start against UTEP. Dawkins registered a passer efficiency rating of 194.86 in that game. He also rushed 14 times for 133 yards and three touchdowns. … Safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles comes into the weekend tied for the FBS lead with three interceptions. He also has a fumble recovery and 12 tackles. … Punt returner Shun Brown has two returns for touchdowns in three games. Brown has averaged 27 yards per return on five returns this season. … Arizona played 27 freshmen, including 17 true freshmen, in its first three games.