Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has built his program on toughness, physical play and a strong running game.
This year’s team has a little something extra.
The seventh-ranked Utes (9-1, 6-1 Pac-12) are in the discussion for the College Football Playoff, mixing their traditional strengths with a downfield passing game that takes advantage of opponents’ worries about senior running back Zack Moss, the school’s career leading rusher.
“I love what we’re doing offensively,” said Whittingham, whose team plays at Arizona (4-6, 2-5) on Saturday night in Tucson, Ariz.
Utah, behind quarterback Tyler Huntley, is averaging 10.89 yards per pass attempt, the fourth-best mark in the country. The Utes also lead the conference and are 25th nationally in rushing (207.1 yards per game), while ranking third in the country in time of possession (34:36 per game).
“You’ve got one of the best running backs in the country,” Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin told reporters of Moss, averaging a Pac-12-best 106.1 yards per game. “I think the quarterback is unbelievable, just the way he does things. He’s extremely gifted, to be able to throw it and run as fast as he does.”
Huntley is completing 74.2 percent of his passes, with 13 touchdowns and one interception. He threw for a season-high 335 yards on 18 attempts in last week’s 49-3 win over UCLA.
Whittingham cited Huntley’s “complete dedication and his complete immersion into the details of what he is doing” for the senior’s improvement this season. “His preparation is outstanding,” the coach said.
While Sumlin frets about how to stop Utah, his bigger concern might be how to move the ball on the Utes. The Wildcats have lost five games in a row, are coming off a 34-6 loss at Oregon and have a banged-up offensive line while going against their second consecutive top-10 opponent.
Due to injuries, Arizona used three first-time starters on the offensive line last week. The three injured linemen are all doubtful for this week, Sumlin said, adding that true freshman Jordan Morgan, who started at left tackle, might also be out after missing the second half with an injury.
At quarterback, Arizona has rotated senior Khalil Tate and true freshman Grant Gunnell in the past few games, with Gunnell starting last week. The two-QB look is likely to continue while the Wildcats lean on running back J.J. Taylor (640 yards, 5.2 per carry).
Utah, meanwhile, is No. 1 in the country in rushing defense (55.4 yards per game) and has held four of seven conference foes to seven points or fewer. John Penisini and Leki Fotu are 330-plus pound tackles in the middle of the line, while end Bradlee Anae has 10 sacks.
“He might not be the first pick of the draft, but you won’t have to wait too long to hear his name called,” Sumlin said of Anae, a senior. “He’s extremely explosive. He’s created double-teams and gotten his other guys open for the pass rush. He can defend the run and the pass.”
Utah is one game up in the loss column over USC in the Pac-12 South, needing to beat Arizona and Colorado (or get one win coupled with a USC loss to UCLA on Saturday) to claim its second consecutive berth in the conference title game.
“The culture here we feel has been really good for many years and last year’s team was similar to this year’s,” Whittingham said. “It just seems we’ve taken it up a notch this year.”
–Field Level Media