With 1st-and-goal at the California 2-yard line in the closing seconds, Utah came up short on three chances to score in a 28-23 loss to the Bears. The No. 24 Utes (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) now return home to face Arizona, a team that has had their number in recent seasons.
Utah has scored just 13 touchdowns in 24 trips to the red zone in its first five games. Converting only 54 percent of trips inside the 20-yard line into six points is a concerning stat for Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham.
“We think we may need to be a little more creative down there and add a few things – which we will,” Whittingham said. “That's our challenge this week is to figure out ways to punch it in rather than have a drive stall in the red zone.”
Arizona should offer a less stiff challenge to Utah's offense. The Wildcats (2-3, 0-2 Pac-12) have given up 40 points and 493.5 yards per game in Pac-12 play. Utah leads the overall series 20-19-2, but Arizona has won four straight over the Utes.
Arizona at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 8 at 10 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Fox Sports 1
Spread: Utah -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Fighting the injury bug
Both Utah and Arizona have been hit hard by injuries in recent games. The outcome of Saturday's matchup may hinge on which team has the most healthy bodies at key positions.
Utah has suffered major attrition along the line of scrimmage and in the receiving corps. Starting center J.J. Dielman suffered a season-ending lower leg injury early in the first quarter against California. He is the fourth starter that the Utes have lost to a season-ending injury since the end of spring ball.
Defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei did not dress for the game. Senior wide receiver Tim Patrick sat out much of the game against the Bears after injuring his foot in the first half. Cornerback Reggie Porter also missed the second half because of an injury. Receivers Tyrone Smith and Cory Butler-Byrd and running back Troy McCormick are all banged up as well and could see limited action against Arizona.
The Wildcats are digging deep into the depth chart at quarterback. True freshman Khalil Tate got thrown into the fire against UCLA after a rib injury knocked out starter Brandon Dawkins and could start against Utah. Earlier in the season, Dawkins took over after Anu Solomon went down with a knee injury in practice.
Running back is equally problematic after Nick Wilson suffered an ankle injury that's kept him on the sidelines in Pac-12 play. J.J. Taylor showed promise in the backfield until breaking his ankle against Washington. It led to wide receivers Tyrell Johnson and Samajie Grant both filling in at running back against UCLA.
2. Shyne gets his shot
Armand Shyne will get his first start of the season at running back against the Wildcats this week. Shyne earned the nod over true freshman Zack Moss after rushing for 99 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries against California.
In his last three games, Shyne has averaged 84.3 rushing yards per game and nearly 5.0 yards per carry. His ability to hit seams hard and power forward for extra yards has proved especially critical for Utah in converting on third and fourth down in short-yardage situations.
Shyne joined the team in 2016 fall camp after one season at American River (Calif.) College and was immediately awarded a scholarship. In a short time, he has moved from fourth on the depth chart to starter and is eager to prove what he can do in his new role.
“It's pretty exciting,” Shyne said. “It's a big step, but I feel like I'll be able to do what the coaches want me to do and get the job done.”
3. Can Arizona fix its defense?
The Wildcats have struggled to stop opponents from moving the chains all season. Arizona has allowed at least 400 yards of total offense and 20 first downs in all five games. Stopping the run has been a big problem in particular. The Wildcats allowed 238.5 yards per game on the ground in losses to UCLA and Washington.
Getting stops on defense will be critical against Utah. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in time of possession (36:13 per game) and letting them hang onto the ball too long will give Utah's defense enough breathing room to make life tough for Arizona on offense. Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez is concerned that the Ute defense could tip the scales if his defense doesn't rise to the occasion.
“They have always been physical,” Rodriguez said. “They are big up front, very big at the corners and big at defensive back. That’s a Utah staple. They are athletic and tough, and they play hard and are well-coached. It’s going to be a tough environment.”
Utah has struggled to match up defensively with Arizona's fast-paced offense since Rich Rodriguez took over the Wildcat program. This may finally change this season. Arizona's depth at quarterback and running back has vanished and the Wildcats’ defense is weak in areas where Utah's offense is strong. That spells trouble for Arizona in its quest to beat the Utes for the fifth straight year.
Prediction: Utah 34, Arizona 24
— 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.