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Utah Utes vs. Arizona Wildcats Preview and Prediction

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The top rushing defense in the Pac-12 aims to slow the conference's most prolific run game in a Friday night league opener pitting Utah against Arizona.

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The Utes are off to a 3-0 start and kick off Pac-12 play with the nation's second-most stingy run defense. Non-conference opponents North Dakota, BYU and San Jose State combined to gain 148 yards on the ground against Utah's physically dominant front seven.

In contrast, Arizona has two individual players who have eclipsed that mark between quarterback Brandon Dawkins (256) and running back J.J. Taylor (186). The Wildcats feature three more rushers in running backs Nick Wilson, Nathan Tilford and Zach Green who have all eclipsed 100 yards thus far in 2017.

A stark styles clash is just one intriguing facet to this Pac-12 South showdown in the Sonoran Desert.

Utah at Arizona

Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 22, 10:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FS1

Spread: Utah -3.5

Three Things to Watch 

1. Great run stopping vs. great running

The aforementioned contrast in Arizona's multifaceted running attack and Utah's stout rush defense is the foremost angle to this contest. It's pretty simple: The team that continues doing as it has through the first three weeks of the season will have the distinct advantage.

OK, so the result is simple; but how each team gets there is a more difficult question. Because Arizona has multiple options with which it can establish the run, completing shutting the Wildcats down may not be in the cards. However, Arizona managed fewer than four yards per carry in a Week 2 loss to Houston, the result of All-America defensive tackle Ed Oliver getting through a typically solid Arizona offensive line to disrupt plays in the backfield.

The pressure rendered Arizona one-dimensional, denying both Dawkins and backup quarterback Khalil Tate opportunities to establish a pass. In turn, the Cougars could successfully load the box without too much concern about the Wildcats' passing game.

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Not many tackles at any level of football are as dominant as Oliver — but Utah's Lowell Lotulelei is a rare exception. Lotulelei is one of the nation's premiere interior defensive lineman. If he wreaks havoc in the backfield, it could be a long night for the Wildcats.

2. Big-play Darren 

Oregon transfer Darren Carrington has provided an immediate big-play threat to the Utah offense not seen since Dres Anderson. Carrington has immediately established himself as the primary target for quarterback Tyler Huntley, catching 26 passes at a remarkable 15.7 per-yard clip.

The Arizona defense has shown significant improvement in 2017 from '16, which was Marcel Yates' first campaign as defensive coordinator. If there's any one area of the Wildcats defense that's best suited to a challenge, it's the secondary, which features veterans Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Dane Cruikshank and Jace Whittaker.

However, with a youthful front seven opposite Utah's offensive line, the Utes can set up Carrington for a game-breaking play by chipping away with the run game. Utah has no shortage of options, either, between Huntley and running back Zack Moss leading the way.

3. Dictate the pace

Since Rich Rodriguez became Arizona head coach in 2012, Utah is just 1-4 against the Wildcats. Last year's win in Salt Lake City was Kyle Whittingham's first head-to-head against Rodriguez since the latter was at Michigan.

Arizona's successfully dictated tempo in each of the four wins, pulling a more methodical Utah team into a higher paced game. In 2015, when the Wildcats stunned a top 10-ranked Utes bunch late in the season, Arizona scored 37 points. Last season, before Dawkins went out with an injury, Arizona was again setting the pace.

With Huntley quarterbacking an offense coordinated by former Eastern Washington assistant Troy Taylor, Utah's better equipped to compete in a shootout than in years past — but it's less the Utes' forte than it is Arizona's.

Final Analysis

Much healthier than it was a season ago, and with a year of experience in the new defensive scheme, Arizona is improved from a season ago. The Wildcats have the pieces necessary to spring a major upset this season. Home-field advantage could play a factor, and Arizona's track record against the Utes makes this an obvious candidate.

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Brandon Dawkins bounced back from a sluggish Week 2 to lead Arizona past an overmatched UTEP bunch. He must continue playing with the same level of confidence against a dramatically better Utah defense. His ability — or inability — to mount an effective passing attack will determine if the Wildcats can rush effectively. Speedster Shun Brown and freshman tight end Bryce Wolma have both shown flashes of being consistent top targets. Should both get going, Arizona can force Utah out of its comfort zone and score a much-needed, conference-opening upset.

Prediction: Arizona 35, Utah 31

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of TheOpenMan.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.