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Arizona football notes: Cats to contend with Utes’ strong defense

What will happen Saturday at Arizona Stadium?
Arizona wins by more than seven points: 32%
Arizona wins by seven points or less: 17%
Utah wins by seven points or less: 19%
Utah wins by more than seven points: 30%
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Star Lotulelei

Utah's Star Lotulelei takes up a lot of space in the middle. Photo by Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

Mash together Arizona’s offense (at least in the passing game) and Utah’s defense (at least against the run), and you’d have a pretty good college football team.

It will be a battle of opposites Saturday at Arizona Stadium, with Wildcats quarterback Nick Foles taking aim at, statistically, the best defense in the Pac-12.

The Utes are allowing only 325.6 yards per game and rank 11th nationally against the run, yielding a mere 91.0 yards per game.

“They’re good. I would say one of the top two defenses we have played all year,” said UA offensive coordinator Seth Littrell.

“They’re extremely physical up front. In the secondary, they are going to try to man you up, beat your receivers up. They are, at times, going to play press coverage and say, ‘Come and get us. If you can make the play, go make the play.’ …

“It’s not going to be one of those easy-type football games where you run up and down the field, I’ll tell you that.”

Utah (4-4 overall, 1-4 Pac-12) is big up front, including 325-pound defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and defensive ends at about 270 pounds. Utah is second in the league with 2.88 sacks per game.

“Defensively, they’re damn good,” said Arizona interim coach Tim Kish. “They’re D-line is very, very good. Very, very good.”

This sounds like a game in which Arizona’s full-house backfield would come in handy. The Wildcats can max-protect Foles while, potentially, taking advantage of the man coverage on the outside with Juron Criner, Gino Crump and others. Too bad for Arizona that Dan Buckner is out with a separated shoulder.

Foles leads the nation with 32.38 completions per game and is third nationally with 366.75 yards per game.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said earlier this season that his team plays more man coverage than anybody in the Pac-12, and Littrell agreed with that assessment.

“But I tell our guys all the time, it doesn’t really matter what they’re doing. It matters what we do and how we execute our base plays,” Littrell said.

“That will never change week to week. It’s a mindset. Obviously, you have to put them in great situations to be successful. But at times in the football game, it’s you against the other one. Can you win? Are you going to win?”

* * *

Redshirt freshman left tackle Mickey Baucus played his best game against Washington, Kish and Littrell said.

“He rose up to the challenge and played a great game,” Littrell said.

“Hopefully, he will continue to do that. He has been working hard in practice, and it is showing on the field. He and (center) Kyle Quinn really stepped up. Those are the two guys who really played well on the O-line.”

Baucus’ challenge this week is Utah right end Derrick Shelby. The senior has six tackles for loss, including four sacks. He has an interception and has broken up five passes.

Littrell said the difference between Arizona’s offensive line from the beginning of the season until now is “night and day.” The Wildcats began the year with the least experienced offensive line in the country.

“They’re going to be special,” Littrell said.

* * *

Senior Lyle Brown and redshirt freshman nickel back Jourdon Grandon were competing for a starting cornerback spot this week, Kish said Wednesday, the last day of media availability with Arizona. He both “both will play some.”

Starting cornerback Shaquille Richardson is back from suspension but likely not back from a sprained ankle. His backup, freshman Cortez Johnson, is doubtful because of a concussion.

Also considering starter Jonathan McKnight hasn’t played all season because of a torn ACL, the Wildcats could be down to their fifth-best cornerback as a starter against Utah.

* * *

Kirifi Taula

Look for 280-pound defensive tackle Kirifi Taula to get ample time at defensive end, as he did last week at Washington. Kish said he likes the extra size out at the edge; Arizona’s starters have been 245-pounders C.J. Parish and Mohammed Usman.

“He’s a thick guy,” Kish said of Taula.

“If you’re standing behind C.J. Parish or Mohammed Usman, you’re not seeing much of a massive body. I like that big, wide back end.”

* * *

Crump, who had four catches last season, has 45 through eight games. The senior has at least five receptions in each of the past six games.

“The thing he has more than he has ever had is the confidence to go out there and know he is going to make a play,” Littrell said. “He has really grown.”

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