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Arizona Wildcats vs. Utah Utes Prediction and Preview

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Arizona Wildcats vs. Utah Utes Prediction and Preview

Arizona Wildcats vs. Utah Utes Prediction and Preview

Strong defensive play got both Utah and Arizona back into the win column ahead of Friday's clash between the Pac-12 South rivals.

The Utes (3-2, 1-2 Pac-12) snapped a two-game losing streak with a 40-21 victory over Stanford. Utah stifled the Cardinal's running attack and forced four turnovers — including a 100-yard pick-six by Jaylon Johnson. It helped the Utes secure their first win of the season over a league foe.

The Wildcats (3-3, 2-1) won for the third time in four games by defeating California 24-17. Just like Utah, Arizona also forced four turnovers to get back in the win column. Two of those takeaways were interceptions returned for touchdowns by Azizi Hearn and Scottie Young, Jr.

Utah leads the series 22-19-2. The Utes have won two consecutive games over the Wildcats to snap a four-game losing streak in the series for Arizona.

Arizona at Utah

Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 12 at 10 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Spread: Utah -13.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Arizona's run defense survive Zack Moss?

One major catalyst for Utah's win over Stanford was the performance of Zack Moss. The junior running back simply imposed his will for the better part of four quarters, piling up a season-high 160 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries against the Cardinal. His 8.0 yards per carry is his most ever against a Pac-12 opponent.

Stopping Moss isn't a simple task. He already has 549 yards and six touchdowns through five games. His 109.8 rushing yards per game ranks third among Pac-12 players. He is the 14th Utah player to reach 2,000 career rushing yards and is on pace to have a second consecutive 1,000 yard season.

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All of this is bad news for an Arizona defense that has been torched by running backs and mobile quarterbacks all season. The Wildcats rank 11th in the Pac-12 in rush defense (106th among FBS teams), allowing 197.3 yards on the ground per contest.

2. Will Utah's defense contain J.J. Taylor and Shun Brown?

If Arizona has any bright spots on a largely sluggish offense, J.J. Taylor and Shun Brown fit the bill. Taylor is a big-play threat in the backfield and on special teams as a kickoff returner. Brown is a versatile receiver and dynamic punt returner. Both players are capable of seizing momentum.

Taylor ranks third in the Pac-12 with 600 total rushing yards. The sophomore running back is averaging a robust 5.8 yards per carry. Brown has 342 yards and three touchdowns on 27 catches. He is Khalil Tate's favorite target among the Wildcat receivers.

Utah can be vulnerable to giving up chunk plays and should be cautious of Taylor and Brown. Two of Washington State's four touchdowns against the Utes came on pass plays of 65 yards or longer from Gardner Minshew. A week earlier, Washington running back Myles Gaskin scored a 38-yard rushing touchdown against Utah.

3. Can Utah maintain offensive momentum?

The Utes took major steps forward on offense in their win over Stanford. Moss dominated in the backfield. Tyler Huntley also made plays with his feet. More importantly, though, Huntley delivered in the passing game as well.

Huntley's final stats weren't eye-popping. He threw for 199 yards and a touchdown on 17-of-21 passing. But the junior quarterback was efficient and accurate in his throws. The best part for Utah is that Britain Covey wasn't the lone wolf in the pack getting something done downfield. Samson Nacua hauled in a 57-yard back-breaking touchdown pass. Brant Kuithe and Demari Simpkins also came up with critical catches to keep drives alive.

Logic dictates that Utah could have even more success in finding the end zone this week. Arizona ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in both total defense (428.3 ypg) and scoring defense (26.5 ppg).

Final Analysis

Before the season began, both Utah and Arizona were seen as potential favorites to win a Pac-12 South title. It has been a bumpy road for both teams since that time. For Utah, however, that road seems to be smoothing out. The Utes have one of the nation's top defenses and they are finally finding an offensive identity. Arizona needed a pair of defensive touchdowns to hang on to beat California. The Wildcats' struggles on offense will catch up to them in Salt Lake City.

NCAAF Top 25 Rankings: Utah

Prediction: Utah 31, Arizona 20

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.