In the roughly 11 seconds that Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson took to cover 100 yards with an interception return last weekend at Stanford, the Utes altered the outlook of their football season.
They went from being winless in conference play to contending for the Pac-12 South title. Kyle Whittingham went from having people question his program’s trajectory to earning a national coaching award. The receivers went from being a liability to a capable, playmaking group when needed.
Now comes the tricky part: following up their first defeat of a Top 25 team in three years with another strong showing. Arizona is in town Friday night, introducing an element of paranoia into the mild case of euphoria surrounding the program. The Wildcats historically have a way of derailing the Utes, just when they’re getting good.
Utah wants consistency, not complacency. The Utes need to build momentum, instead of regressing. They responded well from start to finish at Stanford after two frustrating losses, but can they deal with a dose of success?
“That’s always part of the equation every year,” said Whittingham, who’s the first Pac-12 coach this season to receive the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Foundation’s weekly award. “We need to build on that and not think that we’ve got all the answers — because we don’t.”
Staying hungry is “not too tough,” linebacker Chase Hansen said, “because it's not like we've won that many games yet.”
The Utes have a two-game winning streak against Arizona, but that's not enough to fully exorcise four straight losses that hurt them in this decade. In 2012, the Wildcats ended Utah's nine-year run of bowl eligibility. In 2013, after upsetting No. 5 Stanford, the Utes lost at Arizona. In 2014, after beating Stanford as a road underdog, Utah lost badly (42-10) to Arizona as a home favorite in the inaugural Ute Proud game. And in 2015, after winning at Washington, the Utes lost at Arizona in double overtime.
So the Utes' status as two-touchdown favorites Friday is not especially comforting, as they stage another Ute Proud event to observe the school's Native American ties. They should be able to exploit an Arizona defense that allows nearly 200 rushing yards per game, ranking No. 106 in the country. That's almost exactly the total yardage that running backs Zack Moss and Armand Shyne produced at Stanford.
To prepare for Arizona linebacker Colin Schooler, the Utes employed student assistant coach Trevor Reilly, an NFL veteran, as a scout-team player working against their offense this week. Utah’s defense features Hansen, as the latest version of Reilly. Hansen ranks third nationally with 10 tackles for loss.
Whittingham said he's “not overly concerned” about Utah's highly regarded secondary that has allowed 826 yards passing to Washington State and Stanford. He is asking more of his linemen and linebackers in pass rushing and coverage, though, to help the defensive backs. Utah sacked Stanford's K.J. Costello four times, but only once prior to the middle of the fourth quarter. The Cardinal had scored touchdowns on three straight possessions, until Maxs Tupai's sack disrupted them.
And now the Utes will face Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, who became a national phenomenon last October after getting his chance to play, following Utah’s September win in Tucson. Tate quickly dropped out of Heisman Trophy talk after losses to BYU and Houston to start the season, and he’s been affected by an ankle injury. Yet he remains dangerous as a passer and runner, and running back J.J. Taylor (600) has more rushing yards than Moss (549), although the Wildcats have played one more game than Utah.
ARIZONA AT UTAH
At Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Kickoff • Friday, 8 p.m.
TV • ESPN
Radio • ESPN 700.
Records • Arizona 3-3 (2-1 Pac-12); Utah 3-2 (1-2 Pac-12).
Series history • Utah leads, 22-19-2.
Last meeting • Utah 30, Arizona 24 (2017).
About the Wildcats • This is Arizona’s third game in seven weeks against a Utah school, following a 28-23 loss to BYU and a 62-31 win over Southern Utah. … The Wildcats rank fifth among Pac-12 teams in total offense, averaging 445.3 yards. … Ute athletic director Mark Harlan is a former Arizona team manager.
About the Utes • In 25 seasons in Utah’s program, coach Kyle Whittingham has been involved in 199 wins. … Zack Moss has scored seven of Utah’s 13 offensive touchdowns, six by rushing. … Utah’s homecoming game vs. USC next Saturday will kick off at 6 p.m. on the Pac-12 Networks.