Utah coach Kyle Whittingham knows the Arizona Wildcats have averaged 233 rushing yards per game against the Utes since his program entered the Pac-12 in 2011.
He also realizes Rich Rodriguez’s record against him is 4-1, with his first win against a Rodriguez-coached Arizona team occurring last year in a 36-23 triumph in Salt Lake City.
In that game, Arizona mustered only 127 yards on the ground, led by Brandon Dawkins’ 49 yards on 14 carries. Zach Green was the leading running back with 35 yards on nine carries. Speedy receiver Tyrell Johnson saw time out of the backfield because of injuries decimating that position. He ran four times for 10 yards.
Arizona’s running backs go four-deep now and are healthy entering Friday night’s Pac-12 opener for both teams. Nick Wilson, JJ Taylor, Green and Nathan Tilford bolster the running game behind Dawkins, who leads the team with 251 yards rushing on 34 carries.
The Wildcats rank first in the Pac-12 with 328 yards rushing a game while Utah tops the conference in rushing defense, yielding only 49.3 yards a game.
Something’s gotta give.
“They have had success, last year not so much I think it was 120 or 130 yards which is where you have to keep them if you want to win the game, but Rich (Rodriguez) has a great grasp of offensive scheme,” Whittingham said Monday during his weekly press conference. “He knows exactly what he wants to do and it starts with the run game with those guys. They run the read zone as well as anyone in the country. They have a quarterback that is an exceptional runner.
“That is exactly what they look for in their quarterback, the ability to be a dual threat. We have struggled with them. We beat them the first year and last year but then lost four in-between, so it all stems to the games we lost that we did not do a good job defending the run. So, that is going to be job No. 1 this week like it is every week.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on how his team wrapped up nonconference play pic.twitter.com/1piXydUpKk
Arizona’s rushing highlights against Utah recently in the series:
— Arizona managed to win 37-30 in overtime at Arizona Stadium in 2015 against Utah at Arizona Stadium behind quarterback Anu Solomon’s 86 yards on 10 carries. Jared Baker, replacing the injured Wilson during the game, rushed 13 times for 67 yards. Rushing total: 177 yards on 33 carries.
— Arizona routed Utah 42-10 in Salt Lake City in 2014 behind 218 yards on 20 carries by Wilson. Rushing total: 300 yards on 46 carries.
— Arizona beat Utah 35-24 at Arizona Stadium in 2013 behind Ka’Deem Carey’s 232 yards on 39 carries. Quarterback B.J. Denker contributed 51 yards on 13 carries. Rushing total: 301 yards on 57 carries.
— Arizona beat Utah 34-24 in Salt Lake City in 2012 behind 204 yards rushing on 26 carries by Carey. Quarterback Matt Scott added 74 yards on 13 carries. Rushing total: 320 yards on 46 carries.
In Arizona’s 2011 loss to Utah at Arizona Stadium, the Wildcats rushed for only 131 yards on 32 carries. Daniel Jenkins led the Wildcats with only 57 yards on six carries. That game was played under Arizona interim coach Tim Kish after Mike Stoops was fired midway through the season.
So Whittingham is correct in his assessment. In games the Utes beat Arizona in their Pac-12 years, the Wildcats averaged 129 yards rushing. In the four games Arizona has defeated Utah, the Wildcats have averaged 274.5 yards rushing.
It may not be this simple — because turnovers and other factors might come into play — but if Arizona establishes an effective running game, gaining close to or more than 200 yards, it could be another upset of the No. 23 Utes in Tucson on Friday night.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.