Utah aims for fifth straight win in series with Arizona
Utah has a more established program than Arizona, with Kyle Whittingham the dean of Pac-12 coaches and the Utes winning four straight games in the series.
The Wildcats at least have a more stable quarterback situation heading into the Saturday matchup in Salt Lake City that serves as the season opener for both teams. The game is the first of seven Pac-12 contests scheduled for each school after COVID-19 concerns forced a delay to the start of the season.
Utah has won 11 consecutive home games since a September 2018 loss to Washington.
Whittingham, in his 16th season at Utah, coached the Utes to an 11-3 record last season while Kevin Sumlin was enduring his second losing season in as many years as Arizona’s coach.
The Wildcats finished 4-8 last season with Grant Gunnell splitting time at quarterback with then-senior Khalil Tate. After making three starts as a freshman last year, Gunnell is the clear-cut starter this year, the only underclassman among Arizona’s five captains.
Utah conversely must replace All-Pac-12 quarterback Tyler Huntley, who has exhausted his eligibility. Seniors Jake Bentley (graduate transfer from South Carolina) and Drew Lisk and sophomore Cam Rising were engaged in a battle for the starting role.
Whittingham told reporters this week that he informed the team of the starter for Saturday’s game but wouldn’t announce it until kickoff to keep Arizona guessing.
“We’ll probably let him trot out there and do his thing. Why give the opponent any lead time to prepare?” Whittingham said. “It’s not the end of the world if it gets out somehow. I hope it doesn’t get out, but it works to our advantage if they don’t know who to prepare for.”
Gunnell completed 65.2 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards with nine touchdowns and only one interception in eight appearances last season. His completion percentage ranked fourth in program history (minimum 100 pass attempts) and set an Arizona freshman record.
“When adverse situations arise, I think they reveal some people’s true character,” Sumlin said of Gunnell, a pro-style quarterback at 6-foot-6 and 228 pounds. “I think he stepped forward and has really done some things to grow and to help grow our team together during this offseason during a difficult time.”
Both defenses have significant holes to fill.
Utah returns only two starters on defense from last year’s unit that ranked No. 2 nationally while allowing 269.2 yards per game. Junior linebacker Devin Lloyd, who led Utah with 91 tackles, is the top returner.
Arizona was hit by graduate transfers leaving to other programs after the Pac-12 initially decided to postpone the season until January because of COVID-19.
Three-year starting linebackers Tony Fields II (transferred to West Virginia) and Colin Schooler (Texas Tech) were significant losses. They have been replaced by redshirt freshman Kwabena Watson and true freshman Derick Mourning.
Jalen Harris, a junior who is a potential All-Pac-12 selection, will move from defensive end to linebacker for the Wildcats.
–Field Level Media