Arizona-Utah: 5 things to watch, prediction

Wildcats try to overcome Friday night road game

It's Friday night football, as Arizona plays at Utah, kicking off shortly after 7 p.m. on ESPN.

The Wildcats (3-3, 2-1 Pac-12) are coming off a 24-17 victory at Cal, while the Utes (3-2, 1-2) played their best game of the season last week in a 40-21 win at then-No. 14 Stanford after opening with conference losses vs. the Washington schools.

Some storylines:

1. It's a Friday night game. In the past two-plus seasons, there have been 12 Friday night Pac-12 games in which both teams are playing on short rest. The home team is 10-2 in those games.

Arizona has one of those two home losses, having been beaten by Utah 30-14 last season.

Mostly, though, the Friday night game is a greater burden on the visitors. Take last season for example. Three of the conference's best teams lost on the road on a Friday night: USC at Washington State (30-27), Washington State at Cal (37-3) and Washington at Stanford (30-22).

And, sometimes, it's just not a tough loss, it's the margin of defeat for the visiting team that is notable, such as UCLA dropping a 48-17 decision at Utah in 2017. Or Washington smashing Stanford 44-6 in 2016 in a battle of Top 10 teams.

There might be plenty of statistical noise in this still-small sample size, but it sure looks like the schedule is a factor working against the Wildcats tonight.

2. Utah's running game. Perhaps more bad timing for Arizona. The Utes, after struggling early in the season, have realized who they are on offense -- a heavy run-first attack that will use the RPO game off that to set up an efficient passing game.

The Utes had twice as many rushes as passes last week against Stanford, as quarterback Tyler Huntley completed 17 of 21 throws for 199 yards. That could be the turning-the-corner moment for Utah, which wants to control the clock, limit mistakes wear down defenses.

3. Arizona's offensive line. The Wildcats have been at their best when senior Layth Friekh is at left tackle, which has really happened only twice this season, as he was ineligible for two games and missed time each of the past two weeks because of a foot injury.

Arizona needs Friekh as much as ever against a physical Utah front, led by defensive end Bradlee Anae and tackle Leki Fotu. Behind them is playmaking linebacker Chase Hansen (10 tackles for loss, three sacks, one interception).

It will be a manly challenge for UA's offensive line, which lacks depth and can't afford any of the starters to be out of the lineup for long. A bright spot this season has been true freshman right tackle Donovan Laie.

"I'll tell you what, he's something," said Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin. "Here's a guy, who physically as a high school player is 320-some pounds and athletic. That's a different situation.

"He's still growing as a player every week and learning the position. He's a very, very gifted, talented, young guy. But he has to continue to improve his strength. He's got to continue to understand the game. ...

"Any freshman who has played left tackle and then right tackle halfway through the season ... to play as well as he's had, I don't think you could ask much more from a true freshman."

4. Khalil Tate doing 'just enough.' As Arizona's Khalil Tate said after last Saturday night, the offense did "just enough" in the win over Cal. Same with Tate in the running game.

He hasn't been pulling and keeping the ball very much in the zone-read game, either because of his own unwillingness and/or because of the way defenses are playing him and/or because of a tweaked ankle. But opportunities are there and he absolutely has to maximize those -- such as his key 17-yard run in the fourth quarter last week against the Bears.

He might never get back to the Tate from October 2017, but he has to continue to inch his way toward that to open the possibilities in the Arizona offense ... because Arizona's 265 total yards from last week's game isn't going to cut it.

Without Tate's running, the Cats just don't have enough oomph, especially against a defense that appears better physically at the line of scrimmage.

5. Special teams. The switch to place-kicker Josh Pollack last week didn't necessarily settle the matter, as he bonked a 40-yard field off an upright.

Meanwhile, pretty much nobody does punting/kicking as well as Utah.

The Utes have 2016 Ray Guy Award winner Mitch Wishnowsky at punter and 2017 Lou Groza Award winner Matt Gay at kicker. Gay struggled early in the season but has hit six consecutive field goals, including from 48 and 49 yards.

Big edge to the Utes.

Prediction

Utah last week began to look like the team that could win the Pac-12 South. With that, it's hard to go against the Utes' physicality against Arizona.

Utah 27, Arizona 17.

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