Some of the Arizona Wildcats’ offensive linemen think too much, according to their position coach, Jim Michalczik.
He wants them to play smart, of course. But sometimes he just wants them to attack.
“They’re trying to solve a puzzle out there instead of trying to obliterate somebody,” Michalczik said Tuesday. “We’ve got to get past that. We’ve got to come out from the opening bell and go play.”
Senior right tackle Gerhard de Beer is one of the linemen who over-analyzes his job at times. He’s working on changing that. He knows he can’t afford to be passive Friday night against No. 23 Utah, which has the best defensive front Arizona has faced this season.
“They’re a physical team,” de Beer said, “so we’ve got to come out and try to hit them in the mouth.”
That battle — between Arizona’s offensive line and Utah’s defensive front — has been a deciding factor in almost every matchup between the schools since the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
This year will be no different.
Arizona enters this week leading the Pac-12 with 328 rushing yards per game. That’s the fourth-best figure in the nation. If you include last year’s record-setting finale against Arizona State, the Wildcats are averaging 373.8 rushing yards in their last four games.
Utah, meanwhile, ranks first in the conference and second in the country in run defense, surrendering 49.3 yards per game and 1.7 per carry. No 2017 Utes opponent has eclipsed 63 yards.
Arizona has defeated Utah four times in the past six meetings. In those four victories, the Wildcats have averaged 269 rushing yards per game and 5.8 per attempt. In two losses, those numbers plummet to 129 and 3.7.
Last year’s 127-yard effort in a 36-23 defeat represented Arizona’s second-lowest total of the season. The Wildcats have surpassed 150 yards in every game since, a span of nine contests.
“In the games we’ve managed to win against Arizona, we’ve held the rushing totals down to respectable numbers,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “And the times we’ve lost, they’ve really laid it on us.
“Right now we’re playing the run very well, but they’re obviously running the ball very well. That’ll be an intriguing matchup and, in my opinion, the key to the game — the biggest key to the game.”
The correlation between Arizona’s rushing success and overall success isn’t limited to games against Utah. The Wildcats are 28-8 when they rush for 200 or more yards under Rich Rodriguez. When they fail to reach 150 yards, they’re 3-14.
Ranking fourth in the country in rushing at the moment ought to be a source of pride for Arizona. But the stats don’t really resonate with Michalczik and his men. The way the coach sees it, the numbers tell only “part of the story.” He’s more interested in his blockers’ execution, aggression and application of their techniques and fundamentals.
“Are we playing to our potential? That’s our goal,” Michalczik said. “Our goal isn’t to have this many stats. Our goal is to win the game.”
Arizona rushed for 326 yards in last week’s 63-16 victory at UTEP, the third time in the past four games the Wildcats have topped 300 yards on the ground. But it wasn’t the dominant performance from start to finish that Arizona was seeking.
Taking out quarterback Brandon Dawkins’ 35-yard run, the Wildcats gained only 84 yards on 24 first-half carries. Their running backs combined for 196 yards overall, but averaged only 4.1 per rush. So there’s room for improvement. As Rodriguez put it: “Our best game has not been played yet from what I know they can do.”
“You should always be hungry and never be satisfied,” de Beer said. “If you start looking at statistics, ‘Wow, we had a good game. We don’t have to prepare this hard because we played well.’ That doesn’t make any sense.”
The emphasis this week has been on finishing blocks — staying on defenders throughout the course of a play. “If we can get to that,” Michalczik said, “we can be pretty good.”
It won’t be easy against Utah, which, per usual, features a stellar defensive line. Two mammoth senior tackles, Lowell Lotulelei (6-2, 320) and Filipo Mokofisi (6-4, 295), anchor the unit. Defensive ends Kylie Fitts, Bradlee Anae and Caleb Repp have combined for 16 tackles, five stops for losses and three forced fumbles.
“The kid from Houston (Ed Oliver) was a hell of a player, but these guys have got a lot of good players that have been there a long time,” Michalczik said. “Top to bottom, definitely the best front we’ve played.”
Michalczik doesn’t have to tell his charges how good Utah’s defensive line is. They already know.
“They watch film. They know who the guys are,” Michalczik said. “The good thing is, I think I’ve got a group of guys that will rise to a challenge.”
- Whittingham on Arizona’s Shun Brown, who already has two punt-return touchdowns: “Shun Brown’s got all of our respect.” Utah has the reigning Ray Guy Award winner in Mitch Wishnowsky. The Utes have allowed minus-1 yard on punt returns in three games.
- One example of how Arizona has tried to change things up on offense: Rodriguez said freshman tight end Bryce Wolma at times has been the first option on pass plays. Wolma leads the team with 11 receptions, all of which have come in the past two games.
- UA senior receiver Cam Denson had a yellow jersey on as he walked from the practice field to the locker room. Denson, who missed much of spring and summer workouts because of a foot injury, has appeared in only one game thus far, catching one pass for 5 yards.