Pending Big 12 bedfellows No. 17 Arizona, No. 22 Utah push for win No. 8
No. 17 Arizona has been one of the most surprising teams in the country and will be going for its fifth consecutive victory when it plays its home finale against No. 22 Utah on Saturday in Tucson, Ariz.
The Wildcats (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) still have an outside shot at playing in the Pac-12 championship game, but that involves beating the Utes (7-3, 4-3) and Arizona State to end the regular season.
Oregon, in turn, must lose one of its final two games to create a tie-breaking scenario behind league-leading Washington.
“Our only focus is beating Utah,” Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said. “This is a great team coming in.”
Arizona hasn’t won five consecutive games since starting the 2014 season with a 5-0 record.
Utah has navigated through myriad injuries all season, going 3-3 in its past six games, with each of the losses to ranked teams – at Oregon State, vs. Oregon and, last week, at Washington 35-28.
The Utes responded with resounding victories — 34-14 over Cal and 55-3 at Arizona State — the first game after their previous two losses.
“You’ve got to rebound; you’ve got to respond,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Our team has been good at that this year, at least the first couple times. We’ve got to do the same thing this time around. …
“We lean on the leadership of the team a lot and we lean on the coaches to set the tempo, set the mindset and move forward.”
Utah has won five in a row in the series. That includes the 45-20 decision last season in Salt Lake City.
The Utes were the more physical team in recent years and remain strong on both lines, ranking 30th nationally in rushing (184.9 yards per game) and fifth in rushing defense (85.6 yards allowed per game).
Defensive end Jonah Ellis is having an All-American season, with 12 sacks among his 16 tackles for loss.
The game should feature strong matchups in the trenches. Arizona has a potential 2024 first-round left tackle in Jordan Morgan, who is helping running back Jonah Coleman average 7.15 yards per carry. The Wildcats’ defense is 13th nationally against the run, yielding 99.4 yards per game.
But most of the buzz around Arizona is on redshirt freshman quarterback Noah Fifita, who has started the past six games. For the season, he is 165 of 224 for 1,735 yards, with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Fifita struggled some in the first half against Colorado last week but led a second-half comeback as Arizona won 34-31 on a last-play field goal.
“He never flinched,” Fisch said. “What Noah was able to do is what good quarterbacks do. It’s one play at a time, one play at a time.”
Utah running back Ja’Quinden Jackson has rushed for 627 yards on 122 carries and has three 100-yard games this season. Bryson Barnes has settled in at quarterback, completing 103 of 176 passes for 1,197 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
The final matchup between these programs as Pac-12 schools was considered a betting pick-em early in the week. Both teams will be joining the Big 12 next season.
–Field Level Media