2011 was always going to be a season of firsts for the Utah football team. Though it garnered its first Pac-12 win, it is going after yet another first as it visits the Arizona Wildcats (2-6, 1-5) Saturday in Tucson. This time, Utah is after it's first road win in the new conference against an also struggling conference foe in Arizona.
Both teams need a win badly to remain in bowl contention, and Arizona has a home win-streak to preserve, as a win Saturday would cement a fifth-straight home win record.
The Wildcats have struggled this season, but upon closer examination of their schedule things may not be as bad their record would suggest. Arizona's schedule was ranked as the toughest in the Pac-12 conference by the Sagarin ratings, a system which attempts to assign a ranking to collegiate football schedules nationwide.
Three of Arizona's losses came at the hands of Stanford, Oregon and Oklahoma State; all of which occupy spots in the top eight of the current BCS standings and other NCAA rankings. Arizona lost four of it's six losses on the road, and the combined record of the six teams that Arizona has succumbed to is 37-11. Pac-12 foes Stanford and Oregon have combined for an impressive 15-1 record in 2011, while Stanford and Oklahoma State are un defeated.
Arizona is the only Pac-12 team in which Utah owns a winning record against, going 19-15-1 in it's 35 meetings.
Xs and Os
Saturday's match up should prove interesting, given that Utah's offense is ranked 112th in the nation and dead last in the Pac-12 conference, while Arizona's defense is ranked 113th in the nation and dead last in the conference.
Arizona's deficiency on defense is in the passing game which ranked 110th in the nation. In rushing defense, the Wildcats are ranked 77th in the nation, and tenth in the conference. All in all, the Arizona defense gives up an average of 467.25 yards per game to Utah's average of 306.25 yards of offense per game.
On the flip side, Utah leads the Pac-12 conference in total defense giving up 325.63 yards per game, good for 22nd best in the country. Utah's run defense hovers around the fringe of the top ten in the nation, ranked 11th, allowing an average of 91 yards per game.
With quarterback Nick Foles and prolific receiver Juron Criner, the Wildcat offense is the strength of the team. Foles leads the nation in completions per game (32.38) while Criner ranks 21st in the nation in receptions per game (6.71).
To gain perspective, Foles has completed 265 passes on the season, 40 more than Utah has attempted, with 225. Nine different Wildcat receivers have over 100 yards of receiving, have a touchdown reception and have receptions of 25+ on the season. Seven of those have caught receptions of 40 yards, or more.
Utah corner Conroy Black says he and his secondary counterparts are up to the task, despite the challenges of facing Foles and his impressive aerial attack.
"To go up against these kinds of quarterbacks and receivers week in and week out is what I wanted. It doesn't get any easier from week to week, and I knew I was going to be pushed this season," said Utah corner Conroy Black. "I worked extra hard on my technique over the summer to prepare for the challenge. So far, I feel I've done pretty well, but I can't let up. This week against Arizona is no different."
Ranked 19th in the country in total offense, Arizona averages 465.75 yards per game. The breakdown, however, reveals that the offense revolves around Foles and the pass game, which accounts for 375.63 yards per game, good for third best in the nation. On the ground, Arizona ranks 113th in the nation with 90.13 yard per game.
All things considered, look for Utah to control the game via time of possession ala running back John White in order to keep the ball out of Foles' hands. The difficulty there, however, is that Arizona's defense has given up 51 plays of over 20 yards, an average of 6.4 per game. Even on the ground, it's possible Utah could score quickly, giving Foles and the Arizona offense the ball. With it's limited passing game, Utah can ill afford to get into a shooting match with the Wildcats Saturday if it expects to win.
Several themes will emerge throughout Saturday's match up in Tucson. Both Nick Foles and Juron Criner are looking to lock up multiple school records against the Utes, and it's likely they'll eclipse most they're currently chasing Saturday. Viewers can expect to hear television announcers rattle them off one by one as each record goes down.
Another popular story line is the connection between Utah wide receiver Devonte Christopher and Juron Criner, who played football together at Las Vegas' Canyon Springs High School. The longtime friends were once a dangerous tandem, as Christopher, a former quarterback, tossed the pigskin to Criner en route to multiple awards and accolades, including Gatorade Player of the Year for Nevada.
The two are still in touch often, but according to Christopher, communications have died down a bit this week in anticipation of the game.
"We conversate a lot, but this week not as much. A little bit on Twitter today, but not that much," said Christopher of speaking to his good friend, and this week's opponent.
On whether or not the two are competing, or looking to better one another, Christopher had this to say.
"I'm sure we'll compare a little bit, yeah, we like to compete. But if it comes down to having better stats or getting the win, I'll definitely take the win," he said. "If we win the game, but he has the better day, I'll be happy with that. I'm not worried about that."
Another theme, not quite as urgent for Utah as it is for Arizona is becoming bowl eligible. With four games remaining, Utah must win two more games to become bowl eligible, while the more desperate Wildcats must win out in order to get to post-season play. As a result, look for both teams, especially Arizona, to play with more urgency and emotion. Saturday is also Arizona's homecoming game.
Three Utes hail from Arizona; Luke Matthews, Greg Bird and senior kicker Kenny Golladay, who played at the same high school as Bird (Red Mountain High/Mesa, Ariz.). All three are looking forward to playing at home in front of friends and family.
"It's exciting. I'll have a lot of friends and family there, and I'm trying to work out trades for tickets with some of the guys," said wide receiver Luke Matthews. "I'm looking forward to it, and so far, I think I'll have enough tickets for everyone I have coming."
After sitting out the Washington game due to suspensions handed out by the Pac-12 conference for a fight which broke out against UCLA, corner Shaquille Richardson and nickelback Jourdan Grandon will be back and available to play against the Utes.
Bumps and Bruises
Adding another three players to the list that have been lost for the season, Utah will be without linebackers J.J. Williams and Boo Anderson, as well as offensive lineman Latu Heimuli Saturday. No other injuries so far have been reported by the team.