Editor’s note: This is the latest in a six-week series where we will take an early look at each of Arizona’s 12 opponents this season. Today, we look at Utah. Up next: Arizona State on Friday.
Excuse coach Kyle Whittingham and his Utah squad if they’re already looking forward to November’s matchup with Arizona.
It’s not a knock against Rich Rodriguez or the Wildcats. And surely Whittingham has plenty of respect for the UA. But this year the coach won’t have to deal with Ka’Deem Carey.
The former UA All-America back torched Utah the past two seasons for 436 yards in a pair of wins for the Wildcats. So no disrespect to Nick Wilson, Terris Jones-Grigsby, Zach Green or whoever ends up being the UA’s primary running back — they won’t be Carey, and that’s good news for Utah.
Still, the Utes will have plenty of hurdles this season. After back-to-back 5-7 seasons, Whittingham is hoping to get Utah back to a bowl game and post a winning season.
Here’s a close look at the Utah team trying to take the next step:
Matchup vs. UA: Saturday, Nov. 22
Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium
Last year’s record: 5-7
Projections: The general thought on the Utes is this: Whittingham’s team isn’t in the cellar of the league with Cal and Colorado, but they’re closer to them than the Pac-12’s elite like Oregon and UCLA. Phil Steele, The Sporting News and Lindy’s all project Utah to finish fifth in the Pac-12 South behind UCLA, USC, Arizona and Arizona State. Most are also in agreement that what could hold back Utah this season is its schedule. The Utes play road games against Michigan, UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona State and Stanford, which at the moment, looks like five losses. Utah also has to host USC, Oregon and Arizona. Lindy’s summed up Utah, still a Pac-12 newcomer, this way: “Turning the tide will be an ongoing challenge as Utah adapts to the higher level of competition.”
Three names to know
Quarterback Travis Wilson: The junior has battled injuries during his time at Utah, but no one has questioned his ability. The 6-7, 240-pound signal-caller almost had to retire from football because of an injury to an intracranial artery.
But in late June, Wilson finally received medical clearance to return and will open the season as the starter. In nine starts last year, Wilson threw for 1,827 yards, 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He also rushed for 386 yards and five scores.
Wide receiver Dres Anderson: In a league full of top-notch receivers, Anderson, the son of former NFL player Willie “Flipper” Anderson, is certainly among the elite. The senior led Utah last season in receptions (53), yards (1,002) and touchdowns (seven). The speedster is a playmaker, who also returns kicks for Whittingham’s squad. Arizona was one of the few schools that managed to shut him down last season, holding Anderson to just three catches for 29 yards.
Safety Brian Blechen: The senior missed all of last season with a knee injury, and the Utes will be glad to have him back this season. Blechen started 35 games his first three seasons and was named to four freshman All-America teams in 2010. In 2012, he was honorable mention All-Pac-12 and had 58 tackles and five pass breakups. He will anchor a secondary that returns two other starters and should be a strength for the Utes.
Three numbers to know
130.3: Despite Carey’s success against the Utes, Utah ranked 20th in the nation last season, giving up just 130.3 rushing yards per game.
4.1: Utah returns its leading rusher from a year ago, Bubba Poole, who averaged 4.1 yards per carry. He finished the year with 607 yards on 149 carries.
8: Phil Steele ranks Utah’s schedule as the eighth toughest in the country this season.
Different than last time
They’re healthier. Wilson’s injury woes last year started during Utah’s game at Arizona.
The quarterback left in the first half against the Wildcats after he suffered an injury to his throwing hand. That was one week after he led his team to an upset win over Stanford. After Wilson got hurt, the Utes were never the same. Utah also had to deal with Blechen’s injury and several other bumps and bruises. If the Utes can stay healthy — like they are right now — it will help dramatically.