SALT LAKE CITY — Utah enters Friday night’s game against Arizona with a defense that leads the Pac-12 in numerous ways.
The Utes are the conference frontrunners in first down defense, opponent third-down conversion percentage, pass efficiency defense, red zone defense, rushing defense, and total defense. They’re second in defensive touchdowns, scoring defense and tackles for loss, and third in interceptions.
“It’s the best defense in the league right now and they’ve got a lot of experience, a lot of size and a lot of athleticism,” said Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin. “They play well together. They haven’t given up a bunch of big plays. They’ve really limited people in their run game.”
All that, and the fact that quarterback Khalil Tate of the Wildcats is less mobile than expected this season, may bode well for the Utes.
What’s unknown, though, is how Utah’s offense will fare. The Utes currently reside among the Pac-12's lowest-ranked teams in terms of pass efficiency offense, scoring offense, total offense and passing offense.
However, there was dramatic improvement in last Saturday’s 40-21 win at Stanford. The Utes racked up 421 yards of total offense. Running back Zack Moss netted 160 yards on the ground and quarterback Tyler Huntley completed 17 of 21 passes.
“We know we can do it,” Huntley said. “It’s just a matter of us going out and doing it.”
Huntley added that he felt everyone did a good job of doing their jobs and that’s why they came out with the win.
Utah (3-2, 1-2) snapped a two-game skid with the victory. Senior linebacker Cody Barton noted the importance of keeping things rolling.
“This could be a huge thing for us,” he said. “We’ve got six Pac-12 games left. If we win all six out, you know what I mean, we’re going to the Pac-12 championship.”
Although other variables are necessary to make it happen, Barton added that the Utes are approaching the situation as if it’s all under their control.
“That’s one of our main things, is use this momentum from last game and just let it continue — let us grow from it,” Barton said.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham would also like to see the Utes build on the win at Stanford and not think that they’ve got all the answers. He insists that’s far from being the case.
“The key to the last couple of games is we’ve really taken good care of the ball, zero turnovers which is always going to give you a chance to win,” Whittingham said. “But we’re starting to establish our identity. We’re a physical team. We always feel like we’re a physical team.”
As aspects like passing the ball well come around, Utah enters a pivotal stretch of the schedule. Over an eight-day span, the Utes face division foes Arizona and USC at Rice-Eccles Stadium followed by road games at UCLA and Arizona State.
“I’m just worried about this game,” Whittingham insists. “This game is all I’m worried about, just trying to find a way to have success on Friday night.”
Already intriguing because the Pac-12’s preseason media poll had Utah and Arizona picked to finish second and third, respectively, in the South Division, there are several other storylines to watch. The matchups include:
— Utah’s defense allows just 75.4 yards per game on the ground. Arizona’s rushing offense counters with an average of 201.8 yards.
— The game features the Pac-12’s tackles for loss leaders. Utah’s Chase Hansen checks in with 2.0 per game. Arizona linebacker Colin Schooler is second with 1.9.
— Defense could reign supreme. Utah is holding opponents to 17.2 points per game, while Arizona is giving up 18.3 points per outing over three Pac-12 contests.
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Utes on the air
Arizona (3-3, 2-1)
at Utah (3-1, 1-2)
Friday, 8 p.m.
Radio: ESPN 700AM