As soon as they got on the bus to head from the Sun Bowl to El Paso International Airport, the Arizona Wildcats were talking about the start of Pac-12 play.
They had dispatched UTEP with ease to end the nonconference portion of their schedule. They were eager to move on to Utah, which, for the Wildcats, represents a chance to prove what they are — and what they aren’t.
“This is a big deal to us because we were picked last in the Pac-12 this year,” freshmen defensive end JB Brown said this week. “So we want to come out and make a statement.”
That statement will come in three parts Friday night at Arizona Stadium — three distinct positions, if you will.
1. Defensive position
Other than in practice, Arizona hasn’t faced a quarterback quite like Utah’s new starter, Tyler Huntley.
“He’s a true dual threat,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Like the Wildcats’ Brandon Dawkins, Huntley leads his team in passing and rushing. In three games the sophomore has carried 51 times for 212 yards and three touchdowns, with a long run of 25 yards.
The 2015 Florida Gatorade Player of the Year at Hallandale High School runs an up-tempo, spread-the-field, zone-read offense. It’s all the rage in college football, including at Arizona. But it’s different than anything the Wildcats’ freshman-filled defense has faced in 2017.
So all those ultra-aggressive young Cats who have been flying all over the field will have to play with discipline. If they get out of position, Huntley will make them pay.
“You have to have your eyes right,” UA linebackers coach Scott Boone said. “You have to read your keys. You can’t be watching the ball. You can’t be chasing the ball. You can’t be guessing whether the quarterback gave it or kept it.
“You’ve just got to read your keys and play your responsibility and hope that the other 10 guys play their responsibility.”
The quarterbacks Arizona has faced this season have combined for minus-14 yards on 14 carries. (Sacks count against individual rushing totals in college football.) The longest run by a quarterback against the Wildcats is 7 yards. They have allowed one rushing touchdown to a QB.
But no one threatened the UA defense the way Huntley will. You have to go back to last year’s finale to find an opposing offense that used the quarterback in a similar way. Arizona State’s Manny Wilkins gained 79 yards on 23 carries in that game. He isn’t as explosive as Huntley, though.
“He’s very, very athletic,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. “He reminds me a lot of Brandon. You might have a guy right there in position to make a tackle, but he’ll make you miss or run by you.
“We’ve got to make sure that whoever has contain, whoever has the quarterback, is sound on their assignment.”
2. Field position
Utah always has stellar special teams under Whittingham. The Utes’ punter, Mitch Wishnowsky, is a legitimate weapon.
“I thought their guy last year was one of the big differences in the game,” Rodriguez said of Wishnowsky, the reigning Ray Guy Award winner. “I don’t know what his average was, but it seemed like he always pinned us inside the 10.”
Wishnowsky averaged 50 yards on six punts. He landed five inside the 20-yard line and three inside the 10 — at the 5-, 2- and 1-yard lines. No punt was returned.
The punt that was downed at the 2 led to a Utah safety that changed the tone of the game. Arizona led 14-3 at the time. The Wildcats lost 36-23.
Utah had a 16-yard advantage in average starting field position in last year’s meeting. Field position, which is influenced by all three phases, was a season-long problem for Arizona in 2016. The Wildcats’ average margin of minus-5.5 yards ranked 122nd in the nation.
Arizona has been better in that area this year at plus-2.3. The Wildcats’ special teams have improved overall. Junior Shun Brown has returned two punts for touchdowns. He has gotten the Utes’ attention.
“Shun Brown’s got all of our respect,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got a big challenge. We’ve gotta be smart, and we’ve gotta try to keep him from going off on us. We’ve been good so far.”
Opponents have returned only one of Wishnowsky’s nine punts, for minus-1 yard.
Arizona’s best countermeasure might be preventing Utah from advancing to midfield. The Utes had four three-and-outs in last year’s game — a complete outlier for the 2016 Wildcats, who forced only 30 the entire season. The UA defense already has 16 this year.
3. Pac-12 position
In a lot of ways, this is Arizona’s shot. While the 23rd-ranked Utes are viewed as dark-horse contenders in the Pac-12 South, the Wildcats are still unproven and subject to skepticism.
Despite two dominant victories and a respectable loss in which they established a consistent identity — run the ball, take it away, strike on special teams — it’s fair to question the Cats’ validity. Northern Arizona is an FCS program that’s parting ways with its longtime coach after the season; UTEP might be the worst team in the FBS and fired its offensive coordinator after losing to Arizona.
Even Rodriguez isn’t completely sure what he has yet.
“I have an idea,” he said. “I like their enthusiasm. … I’ve got a bunch of guys that love football, so it’s fun to be around them.
“I’m always nervous when you’re not just playing young guys but still figuring things out a little bit. I like the team so far.”
The Wildcats can change the narrative and their national perception Friday night. A win would put them at 3-1 heading into next week’s bye. They would have as many Pac-12 victories as they had all of last season, with eight games to go.
A loss would leave Arizona at 2-2, and all the questions about Dawkins, Rodriguez and the state of the program would resurface and fester for at least two weeks.
“I think we’ve gotten better,” Rodriguez said. “I like their attention, their focus, so far.
“We’ve still got some growing pains with some young guys. We can get frustrated at times. But their attitude’s been great.
“Now, obviously, the competition gets a whole lot better with Pac-12 play. Our guys are anxious to prove themselves.”