ASU Football Opponent First Look: Utah Utes

QB Jon Hays gets another shot at ASU (Credit: Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE)

Arizona State nearly pulled off an impressive rally last Saturday in Columbia, falling 24-20 to Missouri.

Some tough but valuable lessons were learned by Todd Graham's team and they look to put those to good use this week as the Sun Devils open up Pac-12 Conference play as they host the Utah Utes.

Thus far in 2012, the Pac-12, especially the South division, has been an unpredictable rolled coaster. That leaves both ASU and Utah right in the thick of the race, lending this late September game a great deal of significance.

We'll of course be bringing you in-depth coverage of this critical game all week long leading up to kickoff, but let's first get to know the 2012 Utah Utes.

Utah's Season to Date: The Utes come into Tempe with a 2-1 record. They dominated Northern Colorado 41-0 in their opener, but were stunned by Utah State 27-20 in Week 2, a game in which they once again lost starting quarterback Jordan Wynn for the season. They managed to rally against BYU, earning a hard fought 24-21 win.

Utah's Last Game: Last week was the "Holy War" between Utah and BYU. The Utes hosted the 25th ranked Cougars, and the game was tied at seven at halftime. However, the Utes scored 17 in the third quarter, including a 47-yard fumble return touchdown, to take a commanding 24-7 lead. But BYU mounted a rally to close to 24-21 before a crazy finish. Star Lotulelei blocked a last second field goal from 51 yards, and the fans rushed the field. However...the ball was still in play, and BYU got 15 yards and another chance at the kick from 36 yards, but the result was the same. The kick hit the upright and was no good, giving Utah the win.

Utah's Stat Leaders

Utah's Offense: Utah entered 2012 as a much hyped darkhorse contender in the Pac-12, but not because of their offense. Partially due to injuries, the Utes enter the game against ASU with the nation's 105th ranked offense. Surprisingly, they have been better passing (77th) than on the ground (98th). The Utes often operates out of a three-wide, one back set.

In keeping with a new annual tradition, quarterback Jordan Wynn has been lost for the year due to a shoulder injury. Taking the reins is a name familiar to ASU fans, senior Jon Hays. Hays started last year's meeting against ASU and threw for 199 yards but was intercepted three times. This year, Hays has been a solid, no-frills game manager, but can make a key passing play every know and then. Backup quarterback Travis Wilson is a runner who has seen some time in select packages.

Utah's biggest weapon is running back John White IV, who ran for 1,518 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. White missed last week's game against BYU, but is expected back against ASU. The Utes felt his absence, running for just 49 yards and a paltry 1.4 yards-per-carry. If he can get on track on Saturday, he has the ability to carry the offense by himself. Shutting him down will be ASU's top priority.

The top threat in the passing game is senior DeVonte Christopher. The speedy threat is a home run threat downfield, and leads the team with nine receptions. He's joined in the starting lineup by an even faster threat in sophomore Dres Anderson, who leads the team with 111 yards and a 15.9 yards-per-reception average. Tight end Jake Murphy is a nice 6-foot-4 threat that is second on the team with eight catches.

Of primary concern for Utah is the offensive line, which lost a pair of All-Pac-12 tackles from a year ago. Despite having great size along the line and being anchored by center Tevita Stevens, the Utes have struggled up front, averaging less than 2.7 yards-per-carry.

Utah's Defense

For as inconsistent and ineffective as the Utah offense has been, the defense has been excellent. Operating out of a 4-3 base scheme, the Utes currently rank 15th in the nation in total defense, allowing just 268.8 yards-per-game. The scary thing for Saturday is, they should be even better, with key safeties Brian Blechen (suspension) and Eric Rowe (injury) returning this week.

The defense revolves around All-Pac-12 and All-American-caliber defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound senior is a powerful presence, capable of making play despite double teams and freeing up lanes for his teammates. Two Kruger brothers—end Joe and tackle Dave—are also good players, with Joe leading the team with 3.5 sacks. End Nate Fakahafua is a potent young pass rusher from the other end spot.

The team lost their top two tacklers from last year in linebackers Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez. Trevor Reilly is the top returner at the stud position, and is an active defender who has good pass rushing ability, is employed much like ASU's Devilbacker. After Reilly, there is a lot of youth being developed at linebacker, such as LT Filiaga, currently third on the team with 16 tackles. Senior Dave Fagergren is a blue-collar defender who leads the team with 22 tackles.

As mentioned earlier, the secondary is getting a huge boost with the return of Blechen and Rowe. Blechen in particular is dynamic, having made 78 tackles, eight for loss, with three interceptions last season. At cornerback, the team has a pair of talented and experienced starters in Ryan Lacy and Moe Lee.

Follow me on Twitter @BDenny29 and like House of Sparky on Facebook

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