One thing that people always say immediately after the College Football Playoff standings come out is that there’s still a lot of football left to be played and that anything can happen over the final weeks of the season.
Arizona proved this point on Saturday afternoon in Salt Lake City. Behind a complete team effort, the Wildcats demolished No. 17 Utah, keeping alive their hopes of winning a Pac-12 championship.
Make no mistake about it: this blowout over Utah will definitely move Arizona up in the standings. After all, the Utes defeated both USC and UCLA this season and “controlled the game” (yes, I hate that metric) against Arizona State. With a little bit of luck, Utah would actually sit atop the South division standings.
None of that mattered in this contest. Arizona took control of the game from the opening whistle and never looked back. Every time that it looked like Utah was going to make a game of it, the Wildcats would come up with a big play to turn the Utes away.
What’s most impressive about this victory is that it was one of the most complete efforts we’ve seen out of any team all season. The Wildcat defense dominated the game early, holding the Utes to three-and-outs on five of their eight first half possessions. Although it did allow some yardage in the second half, the Arizona defense came up with several timely plays in the second half, including a clutch sack on Utah quarterback Travis Wilson to start the third quarter, which prevented Utah from creating a one-score game.
The Utes had trailed, 21-7, but with Arizona starting quarterback Anu Solomon out for the second half (he was wearing a walking boot), a Utah touchdown at that moment would have made the score 21-14 and saddled the Wildcats with a great deal of added scoreboard pressure. When Arizona held Utah to three points and preserved a two-score lead at 21-10, it won back a crucial piece of leverage and did not let go.
In all, the Wildcats forced six three-and-outs, four turnovers, and scored two touchdowns. They also held Utah to less than 26 yards in 13 of its 16 possessions.
The offense played every bit as well as the defense. Sure, it produced “only” 520 yards of total offense – just 28 more than it averaged coming into the game – but the numbers fail to tell the whole story. Utah’s usually-stout run defense (3.63 yards per carry) had absolutely no answers for Nick Wilson, who ran for 218 yards. More impressively, the offense continued to click in the second half under backup Jessie Scroggins, who took over for an injured Solomon. Together, the quarterbacks combined for 222 yards passing, with three completions of 40 yards or longer.
This type of precision is why the Wildcats are still a threat to win the Pac-12 title. Remember, Arizona had beaten Oregon in each of the last two seasons, including a victory over the Ducks in Autzen Stadium earlier in the year. Provided the ‘Cats make the Pac-12 title game, there’s no reason to think they can’t win it.
But, will Rich Rodriguez and company make it to the championship game?
Believe it or not, the odds are quite good. All Arizona needs other than a win over Arizona State next Friday is for UCLA to beat USC this week, and then have Stanford upset the Bruins the following week. While the last part of that equation seems unlikely based on just wins and losses, it’s worth noting that the Cardinal pass rush is one of the best in the nation (9th with 33 sacks), which could cause problems for a UCLA offense that hasn’t been able to keep Brett Hundley upright all season.
It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out. After today’s win, though, Arizona remains in the center of the Pac-12 South race.