No. 10 Utes face Arizona in final Pac-12 road test
Utah remains the front-runner in the Pac-12 South, but not by much.
So Saturday night's game between the 10th-ranked Utes (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12, No. 10 CFP) and Arizona (5-5, 2-5) in Tucson, Arizona, is critical for Utah's bid for a conference title, and maybe more.
''The stakes get higher every week. I tell our team that all of the time,'' Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. ''The deeper we get into this, the bigger the situation. That's why you play the game, to be in situations like this.''
Arizona, the defending Pac-12 South champion, enters its final home game on a three-game losing streak, but the Wildcats have beaten Utah in each of Rich Rodriguez's three seasons as Wildcats coach.
''They've had our number the last three years,'' Whittingham said. ''There's no chance of us overlooking these guys.''
Here are some things to look for when the Utes play the Wildcats.
RUN SHOWDOWN: Arizona brings a top rushing game into a game against a Utah team that leads the Pac-12 in run defense.
The Wildcats enter the game ranked second to Oregon among Pac-12 teams in rushing, averaging 244.5 yards per game. Utah has given up 114 yards per game on the ground.
Something has to give.
''We know we're strong up front,'' Whittingham said. ''We also have excellent linebacker play. You combine those and that's a pretty good starting point to be good against the run.''
Arizona has three players who have rushed over 600 yards this season - running backs Nick Wilson and Jared Baker and backup quarterback Jerrard Randall. Wilson leads the way with 691 yards. He gained 218 yards and scored three touchdowns in the Wildcats' 42-10 victory at Utah last year but has been out with a knee injury. He is listed as questionable for Saturday night's game.
BOOKER'S IMPACT: Utah isn't too shabby on the ground, either.
Devontae Booker ranks third in the conference with 1,116 yards and 10 touchdowns. He is averaging 124 yards per game.
Rodriguez called Booker ''one of the best running backs in the league for sure.''
Booker rushed for 142 yards against the Wildcats last season.
SENIOR EMOTION: It will be an emotional home finale for the Arizona seniors.
Among them is safety Will Parks, who grew up in difficult circumstances in Philadelphia and has thrived since coming to the desert. His family will finally be together to watch him, he said.
''To go out there and get Utah, a top-10 team, on senior night, with my mom and dad coming to town would mean a whole lot to me,'' he said, ''especially knowing that it is the first time that they are in the stands together. I am going to go out there and do what I have to do knowing that they are up there at the same time. I'm about to tear up just thinking about it.''
THE SCHEDULE: The Utes are playing their final road game of the regular season. Of course, they want one or two more journeys, to the Pac-12 championship game and, after that, who knows?
UCLA has its big game at Utah next week, while USC must travel to Oregon.
Of course, the Bruins and Trojans meet down the road a ways. The Utes want to make that game meaningless as far as the Pac-12 title chase goes.
The Wildcats need one win to be bowl-eligible. They finish their regular season next week at Arizona State.
COACHING RUMORS: Whittingham and Rodriguez have both been rumored as candidates for some of the many open coaching positions around the country.
Utah athletic director Chris Hill told the Salt Lake City Tribune he has ''communicated'' with Whittingham about a contract extension.
''We both know that we've got a lot going right now that's great,'' Hill said. ''Let's not get diverted to something that is not going to be focused on the players and winning and having an opportunity that is spectacular.''
In a radio interview, Rodriguez said he hadn't talked to anyone from Virginia Tech.
Then he joked, ''Let's go to like the Bahamas. They got a university down there. Toes in the water, it'd be nice.''