Utah’s Pac-12 opener pits the conference’s top run defense against the leading run offense

Nick Wagner, Nick Wagner

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham meets Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez at midfield after an NCAA college football game in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2016. Utah battled back from a first-half deficit to defeat Arizona 36-23.

TUCSON, Ariz. — From 2012-15, Arizona ran past Utah. The Wildcats racked up 1,076 yards on the ground in posting four consecutive victories over the Utes.

The streak was snapped last year at Rice-Eccles Stadium where Utah held Arizona to just 127 yards rushing en route to a 36-23 victory.

On Friday, the teams meet again and as usual a ground battle is expected to ensue. It’s marquee worthy.

Arizona enters the game as the Pac-12’s top rushing team. The Wildcats are averaging 328 yards per outing. The 21st-ranked Utes, meanwhile, counter with the conference’s No. 1 run defense. They’re giving up just 49.3 yards on the ground.

“That will be the biggest matchup and the most critical to the outcome of the game,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.

It certainly has been since Rich Rodriguez became Arizona’s head coach in 2012. The Wildcats rushed for 320 yards against the Utes that year. That was followed by final totals of 300, 298 and 158.

“Historically, when we’ve held them to 150 or less rushing we win and when we don’t we lose,” said Whittingham, who added that Arizona runs the ball as well as any team in the country — including the academies.

The Wildcats ran for 506 yards in their 62-24 season-opening win over Northern Arizona. They rushed for 152 in a 19-16 loss to Houston and amassed 326 in last week’s 63-16 victory at UTEP.

“I’ve got a bunch of guys who love football. It’s fun to be around them,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, whose squad has already played 24 freshmen (14 true) this season. “. . . We’d like to be 3-0 instead of 2-1. We’ve got to play our best football. I’m confident that our guys will have a great week of practice.”

Junior quarterback Brandon Dawkins, who leads Arizona with 422 yards passing and 251 yards rushing, directs an offense that has racked up 1,467 yards in three games.

“It’s always scary….

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