Sione Tuihalamaka knows all about Utah's Star Lotulelei.
"I'm a big fan," Tuihalamaka said this week. "I respect him. I know some of Utah's players, and I know from them that Star's a good guy. He'll do good."
It's just that tonight, Tuihalamaka wants to do better. The Wildcats starting nose tackle will line up tonight hoping to outdo Lotulelei, widely considered the best defensive lineman in the West and a likely NFL first-round pick.
Tuihalamaka has been solid as a junior. In 10 games, the 6-foot-2-inch, 271-pound junior has registered 22 tackles, the most of any UA defensive lineman. Lotulelei has 33 stops, nine tackles-for-loss and four sacks.
Tuihalamaka smiled when asked if playing Lotulelei will motivate him to play better.
"Of course; that's what competing's all about," he said. "If you compete, you want to beat the guy at your position. But you also have to respect him. I respect him as a player and as a person. If he does good, he does good; if I do good, I do good."
Lately, "good" has been a subjective term when discussing the Wildcats' defense. Arizona has been decimated by injuries and inconsistency lately and has struggled to even slow down the opponent's running game.
Arizona's last two foes, UCLA and Colorado, have rushed for a combined 532 yards and nine touchdowns. The UA is both undersized and inexperienced - Tuihalamaka is one of just four upperclassmen in the team's starting 11. The others: linebackers Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers and cornerback Shaquille Richardson.
Tuihalamaka said he has been pleasantly surprised by the young players' attitudes.
"Some of them are actually mature," he said. "Some of them like to mess around,and that brings the kid out of me. My job is just to be another leader, like Jake Fischer. If we get everybody to lead, we don't have to follow much. If one guy drops, another guy can step up."
The last time
Cats' loss to Utes like 'passing a kidney stone'
Date: Nov. 5, 2011
What went down: Jon Hays threw for 199 yards and a pair of scores, and Utah forced three Arizona turnovers on the way to a 34-21 win at Arizona Stadium. The loss eliminated the Wildcats from bowl contention.
How it read: The Star's Greg Hansen said the defeat was the capper to a miserable UA season, one that "has become as fun as passing a kidney stone." He wrote:
"The Utes were clearly more physical. They played with an energy that befits a happy team. ... They played smart, which you can't say of Arizona. If the Utes made a mistake, you'll have to dig through the video, in slow motion, to find it. By comparison, two Wildcats punts were blocked, the UA gave up two long touchdown passes when cornerbacks were embarrassingly late to pick up the coverage, and on and on."
Turning point: Arizona was trailing 27-14 early in the fourth quarter when quarterback Nick Foles was intercepted as he tried to throw a fade pass into the end zone. Utah's Conroy Black returned the pick past midfield, and John White IV scored an 11-yard touchdown, putting the game away.
Stats that matter: Foles completed 25 of 43 passes for 326 yards and two TDs, but he was intercepted twice and sacked twice. Arizona outgained the Utes 457-332 in total yards, but it lost the turnover battle and was penalized 11 times for 96 yards. White, the Utes' star running back, had 109 yards and two TDs. Utah blocked two UA punts.
It's history: Arizona fell to 2-7, then lost the following week's game at Colorado before ending with wins over ASU and Louisiana-Lafayette. Utah improved to 5-4 and earned a bid in the Sun Bowl, where it beat Georgia Tech in overtime.
Win lets Denker add to school record book
Matt Scott's expected return to the starting lineup could mean the end of B.J. Denker's brief, brilliant run as the Wildcats' quarterback. Here are three stats that will blow your mind.
1. After turning the ball over on the first offensive play last week against Colorado, Denker drove the team to seven consecutive touchdowns. On those drives, the UA ran 40 plays and gained 475 yards; the average possession lasted just 1 minute 36 seconds. The seven straight TDs are a modern-day UA record; the Wildcats scored in six straight against UCLA in 2011.
2. Denker's pass efficiency rating of 214.46 against Colorado was the high for a UA quarterback this season; Scott's best, against Washington, was 212.49. Denker was 12 of 14 for 136 yards and two touchdowns against Colorado.
3. Denker and tailback Ka'Deem Carey combined for 410 rushing yards against the Buffaloes, the best two-person mark in program history. Who cares if Denker had just 44 of them. The mark, with Carey's 366, was the best since Kenny Cardella (200) and Don Beasley (193) tore up ASU for 393 yards in 1953.
Return to Utah
Tight end Robinson grew up hating Utes
The Arizona Wildcats will be cold and - if the elevation is any factor - gasping for breath tonight, when they take on Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
For Drew Robinson, it'll just feel like home.
The UA's senior tight end will play in front of his hometown fans for the first time in his college career when the Wildcats face the Utes. His exact number of supporters is growing by the minute.
"A lot of family, a lot of friends," he said. "It's pretty much like a home crowd. There are only four in my immediate family, but I have a lot of extended family who's coming."
The 6-foot-5-inch, 256-pound Robinson is a:
1. Utah man. Robinson hails from nearby Coalville, and attended the same high school - North Summit - as former UA standout Brant Boyer. In a state where everybody bleeds either red or blue, Robinson and his family rooted for BYU. Drew grew up idolizing Cougars quarterback Brandon Doman and running back Luke Staley - and hating the Utes.
"I strongly dislike them," he said. "I'll say that."
2. Family guy. Robinson is one of two married players on the team; he and his wife, Kensi, met at Snow College and got married before Drew transferred to the UA two years ago. The Robinsons are expecting their first child in April.
Robinson admits that he probably has more in common with guard Shane Zink, the other married player, than with many of his young - and eager - teammates.
"All these guys are talking about going out," he said. "It's … whatever. I'd rather be with the same person anyway."
3. Surprise standout. Though he didn't catch a single pass in last week's win over Colorado, Robinson played arguably the best game of his career. As a run-blocker, Robinson helped seal off back-side blocks for Ka'Deem Carey as he set the Pac-12's single-game rushing record.
"It was a chance for me to get out there and show what I had. I took advantage of it, I guess," he said. "This offense is a big adjustment for me. I do what I have to do, and I'm improving every week.
Wildcats on TV
Rodriguez fine with Cats' late-night starts
Arizona's late starts and television station bingo have made the 2012 season a challenge, to be kind, for some fans. But there's a bright side to all the exposure. Here's what UA coach Rich Rodriguez said this week about television's affect on recruiting and the development of Arizona's national brand:
On whether it's helped: "I think we're more visible. Maybe we can petition not to play at 8, so we can get to bed earlier - but most of the recruiting's on the West Coast, so it's not a bad time for them to watch."
On who watches: "We let (recruits) know every week that we're on TV. We'll send out letters and stuff to let them know every week. Hopefully, DirecTV will pick up the Pac-12 Network and everybody will tune in."
On whether his offensive system is TV-friendly - and recruit-friendly: "That's been the way in the past. Sometimes, you don't realize it, but when I was out of it for a year, I'd run into guys in Texas or whatever. People would say, 'I remember at West Virginia with (quarterback) Pat White and (running back) Steve Slaton. You forget how impressionable they are in sixth, seventh, eighth grade."
Arizona at Utah • 8 p.m. • ESPNU • 1290-AM, 107.5-FM
Game-day breakdown by Ryan Finley
Utah vs. Arizona, by the numbers
Previous meetings between UA and Utah, old WAC foes and the Utes' second-longest series against a Pac-12 foe.
Arizona's all-time record against the Utes. The Wildcats are 7-10 in Salt Lake City.
Total point differential in the schools' meetings, with Utah leading 720-688.
Arizona's last win against the Utes came a decade ago, when coach John Mackovic led a 23-17 victory in Tucson.