One for the road all Wildcats need
Marquis Flowers and the Arizona defense need to come to play Saturday night in Salt Lake City.
The Arizona Wildcats football team has achieved budding success in 2012, though the exact flavor of that success, and more than likely, where the team will travel in December, will be determined over the next two weekends, when the UA squares off with Pac-12 South division rivals Utah and Arizona State.
Postseason bowl seeding, and the overall feeling of the direction in which head coach Rich Rodriguez’s new program is heading, will shake out over the coming week, and by Thanksgiving Saturday, Cats fans will either be rushing to reserve seats for games in Las Vegas, El Paso, or San Francisco, or will be relegated to pondering a frigid mid-December trip to Albuquerque.
Or perhaps nowhere at all.
Arizona attained bowl eligibility for the first time in two years last week, when it rode the Ka’Deem Carey Express to a 56-31 blowout win over Colorado on homecoming. The sophomore tailback from Oro Valley set a conference record with 366 rushing yards that afternoon, catapulting himself into the conference yards lead with 1,381, also good for second in the nation. The showcase against the lowly Buffaloes put the Wildcats in position to close their season above popular pre-season expectations, yet there is still considerable work to be done before anyone can truly celebrate.
That’s due to the Pac-12’s seven conference bowl tie-ins, and a large group of teams fighting for the final three or four slots. UCLA (8-2), Stanford (8-2), Oregon State (7-2), USC (7-3), Washington (6-4), and Arizona (6-4) all currently sit within two or fewer games of each other, and a loss or two for any will certainly send them tumbling toward a bowl game against a mid-level foe from a faraway conference.
The Cats are tied at 3-4 in Pac-12 play, and are overall just one game ahead of 5-5 Arizona State, losers of four straight. A UA loss this week in Salt Lake City would likely lead to next Friday’s Territorial Cup game being a de facto ‘play-in’ for the New Mexico Bowl, with the loser feasting on humble pie to go with their holiday leftovers. ASU hosts 2-8 Washington State on Saturday, so their losing streak is almost guaranteed to end.
The prospect of that winner-take-Albuquerque meeting with the Sun Devils should trouble Arizona fans, as they know full well how strange things have played out in the series over the decades. Just recently, the road team has won three straight meetings between the in-state rivals. And this year’s game is in Tucson.
While the Wildcats, winners of three of their last four, are playing better football at the moment, they would be wise to avoid waiting a week to gain that crucial seventh win.
Arizona faces a 4-6 Utes team tomorrow, one that is desperate to make its play for the Pac-12’s final bowl spot (or any berth whatsoever). Utah’s lone victories this fall have come at home, and another triumph in Rice-Eccles Stadium would pave the way for their finale against Colorado, a game in which Kyle Whittingham’s team should coast to victory, because in spite of the cold, thin Boulder air, the one-win Buffs are just plain bad in 2012.
Utah is suited to counter Arizona’s newfound go-to playmaker in Carey, as defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and the Utes defense are the conference’s third-best versus the run. That fact may frighten Arizona a little less now than it would have last week, however, following Thursday’s announcement that Wildcat senior quarterback Matt Scott is listed as probable to take the field on Saturday. Scott’s strong, accurate arm, coupled with his experience, give him a significant leg up on backup BJ Denker, though the junior southpaw deserves his share of praise after leading his team to victory in spot duty last week. And though Arizona may try to run the ball more than they normally would with a healthy Scott – given the anticipated mid-to-low 40s temperature during the game – it will comfort co-offensive coordinators Rod Smith and Calvin Magee to know No. 10 will have the ball when a crucial play needs to be made.
If Scott resembles what he’s been most of the year and keeps the Utah defense guessing, and the UA offensive line is able to give Carey enough space to garner his eighth 100-yard game of the 2012 campaign, then the Wildcats ought to be able to return home with their one and only road victory of the season. It would be a sweet win, as it would create another doubly perfect scenario: the opportunity to improve their bowl prospects, while also knocking “that team up north,” as Rodriguez calls them, from the post season entirely.
But there are no guarantees.
Scott never looked quite right against UCLA, and that was before suffering the third quarter concussion that kept him out last week. A missed throw or a turnover on a critical play could be the type of spark the Utes need to start rolling, and as evidenced by downtrodden Colorado’s 437 total yards in that game, it’s already fairly simple to move the ball against Arizona to begin with. On a bitter night, against an opponent with nothing to lose, in front of a packed house of 45,000, an extra possession or two might easily decide the outcome.
That maligned Wildcat defense has had some bright spots, however.
Junior linebacker Marquis Flowers has been all over the field this season, and in the past four games, he’s collected 31 tackles, two interceptions, and three sacks, including a forced fumble. Along the same vein, sophomore safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant has made 34 stops over that stretch, while snagging two picks of his own. The havoc these two create will be vital for Arizona on Saturday, as their ‘D’ will seek to counter the inevitable yards they’ll surrender with more opportunistic takeaways, plays that have kept the Cats in most of their games this season.
The Utes’ bruising senior running back, John White, averages 85 yards a game in 2012, and he’ll likely have a stellar showing this week, as most opposing backs do against the UA. But as long as the Cats limit him to no more than 150 yards, the inexperience of Utah’s freshman QB Travis Wilson, filling in for injured starter Jon Hayes, will give the Wildcats the opportunities they need to sneak home with an enormously significant victory.
Scott will be on target Saturday, Carey will be solid as usual, and UA cornerback Jonathan McKnight – who hasn’t grabbed a pick in nearly two months – will seize his nearly certain forthcoming opportunity, in a big way.
Arizona 31, Utah 27, setting up another dramatic Duel in the Desert in Tucson in one week.
Follow me on Twitter @EricWKay.