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If Arizona plans to get back on track to bowl eligibility, then Saturday night's first test in the most generous three-game Pac-12 Conference stretch of the season will be its toughest.
The Wildcats (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12), who have lost their last two games, return to Arizona Stadium for the first time in more than a month and will meet sky-high confident Utah. The Utes (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) stunned then-No. 5-ranked Stanford last week after a fourth-and-2 defensive stand inside the 10-yard line sealed a 27-21 victory.
"It seems to be that our thing as a team this year is toughness," Utah defensive end Trevor Reilly said. "I think that was personified there on the last stand."
Arizona, which came up short 38-31 at emotionally charged USC last week, will have a similar task, head coach Rich Rodriguez said.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
"A veteran team, they come ready to play all the time," Rodriguez said. "They understand the importance of each (game) and how to come out of the gates."
And the Utes are certainly far from a bunch of young bucks. A team that underachieved and finished a disappointing 5-7 a season ago, seven of Utah's top-nine tacklers are upperclassmen - including five seniors, led by Reilly.
The 6-5, 255-pounder is tied for ninth in the Pac-12 with 44 tackles and is part of a line that is the best in the league at pressuring opposing quarterbacks. The Utes lead the conference with 20 sacks.
Rodriguez said the difference in a Utah team that lost 34-24 to Arizona a year ago is a defense that has more experience - including key junior college transfers - and adjusted to the spread-heavy offenses in the Pac-12.
"They've changed a few things," Rodriguez said. "There's so much spread in our league that they probably spent the offseason studying a lot of the things and how you're going to defend the zone-read, inside-zone plays and things like that. So, you see a few different things that they're doing that they didn't do last year at this time.
"And they've got a few guys that were either injured or new on their defense that are making a big impact for them, too."
And applying pressure to the quarterback position has been a focal point for Arizona's opposition through five games.
But senior B.J. Denker may have figured out a solution during a furious fourth-quarter rally against the Trojans that ended with the first-year starter standing on the sidelines, without a chance to complete the comeback.
Denker, who cut a 21-point deficit down to 7 with more than four minutes to play, finished with career highs of 363 yards and four passing touchdowns. It was, by far, the Wildcats' best game through the air all season, as three different players made six catches apiece.
Before the outburst, 150 passing yards would have been considered an explosion.
"My receivers came up and said, 'Hey, we've got complete confidence in you. We know you can play,'" an encouraged Denker, who completed 28 of his 44 throws, said after the loss.
The UA defense is now looking to pick up the slack and regain its early-season confidence, and it will have to do so without leading tackler Jared Tevis. The junior, who has made 36 tackles this season, will miss the game with a knee injury.
Sophomore William Parks is expected to make his first collegiate start in his place.
And Rodriguez said it was poor tackling that doomed the Wildcats last week, allowing a season-worst 546 yards of total offense - including a pair of first-quarter passing scores that exceeded 60 yards apiece. The other part of the problem was the lack of a forced turnover after collecting interceptions in each of the first four games.
The defense will look to harass Utes quarterback Travis Wilson, who owns a six-interception nightmare in an Oct. 3 loss to then-No. 12 UCLA. The Bruins were able to tip all but one of the mistakes before hauling in the picks.
Wilson bounced back to complete 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception against the Cardinal.
The Wildcats, who have a Pac-12-worst six sacks, must first get by an imposing offensive line to pressure Wilson, defensive end Reggie Gilbert said.
"Utah is definitely a physical team (along the line)," Gilbert said. "They're big - they're really big."
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Click Here to view this Link.Tracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor