Utes welcome the snow advantage in game against Wildcats


— Conor Barry

The dream is still alive for the 17th-ranked Utes to reach their first ever Pac-12 title game. On Saturday, they face their next major hurdle when 15th-ranked Arizona makes its way from the desert to cold and wet Salt Lake City with Pac-12 title aspirations of its own.
Last week, the Utes narrowly edged out Stanford in double overtime in a mostly defensive struggle until quarterback Travis Wilson found receivers Kaelin Clay and Kenneth Scott for touchdown passes in each overtime session.
“We’re doing whatever we’ve got to do,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’re not very prolific right now on offense. We’re not putting up huge numbers, but I believe we’re playing smart and we’re playing disciplined.”
With only 247 yards of total offense against Stanford, the Utes are going to need a lot more fire power to go up against an Arizona team that is averaging close to twice that amount of yardage in their games.
“They’re approaching 500 yards a week on offense, and they’re scoring a lot of points,” Whittingham said. “What they present is a very balanced team, across the board — there [are] really no negatives.”
The offense is led by quarterback Anu Solomon, who is averaging over 305 yards per game, passing with 58 percent completion and a 25-7 touchdown to interception ratio—stats that have not gone unnoticed by the Utah coaching staff.
“They are one of my favorite offenses to watch,” said Utah safeties coach Morgan Scalley. “Their quick game, their play action game off of the zone read, the quarterback is one of my favorites in the league. He’s a very good decision maker, he does not panic under pressure, he stays alive, he keeps his eyes downfield and they have wide receivers that are very competitive and physical blockers.”
For a defense like Utah’s that likes to play a lot of one-on-one matchups in the secondary, the Wildcats produce an exciting challenge for Scalley and his defensive backfield with 13 different receivers who have recorded receptions this season, 10 of whom have recorded touchdown catches. The receiving corps is led by Cayleb Jones, who has caught 58 balls for 788 yards and eight touchdowns.
“I love the competition that they bring out in us,” Scalley said. “As a man coverage team, when they go four wide, can you hold up? That’s the question, and we feel like we did that to a certain extent against Oregon and other teams we’ve played in this league.”
Fortunately for the Utes, Solomon is coming off of one of his worst performances of the season last week in Tucson where he only completed 17 of his 39 pass attempts for 242 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns in a 27-26 victory over Washington.
While the Wildcats’ defense is only ranked 61st in the country in points allowed, they have some extremely physical playmakers on defense, including linebacker Scooby Wright, who Whittingham called “one of the best in the country.” Wright is averaging nearly 12 tackles per game and has made numerous clutch plays for his defense, including forcing the game-clinching fumble on Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
Throughout this season, Whittingham has pronounced his admiration of his team’s ability to not turn the ball over like it did so many times last season. So far in 2014, the Utes are averaging only a single turnover per game and their protection of the ball has kept them in games that they would not have had a chance at winning otherwise. Ball protection is going to be key on Saturday, with cold temperatures and a 90 percent chance of precipitation expected to hit the Wasatch front.
“I can’t overemphasize how important it is to continue to protect the football,” Whittingham said. “As long as we keep doing that, we always have a shot to win.”
As for the weather, Whittingham said he would “absolutely” welcome some powder to Rice-Eccles Stadium with open arms.
“I sure hope it does [snow],” Whittingham said. “It’s our element — it doesn’t bother us a bit.”
The Utes and Wildcats will kickoff at 1:30 p.m. MT on Saturday. The game will also feature a senior day tribute to the 17 graduating seniors before kickoff.
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