ASU’s 2-1 start has brought extreme optimism throughout Tempe, yet the identical 2-1 record for Utah is disappointing. Prior to kickoff of the 2012 season, the Sun Devils' media hype was practically nonexistent, while the Utes were a trendy sleeper pick to beat out USC in the Pac-12 South.
Saturday's matchup against Utah presents a challenge that ASU has not yet experienced in trying to bounce back after a tough loss. The Devils of old would spiral downhill, but under the leadership of coach Todd Graham, many expect the trend to be reversed.
Despite the negative momentum, ASU has a plethora of advantages over Utah. It all starts with playing under the lights of Sun Devil Stadium (8-2 in their last ten home games), facing a fourth consecutive backup quarterback (Jon Hays) and beating a similar Utah squad on the road in 2011, 35-14.
Utah comes into ASU on a high note, defeating bitter cross state rival Brigham Young 24-21. The epic battle was pure entertainment, resulting in fans rushing the field on three separate occasions. In spite of all the running, Utah fans and media travel well, therefore we expect a fair share of red sprinkled in throughout all the gold.
This battle marks the beginning of Pac-12 play, meaning ASU can finally move on from a mediocre 4-5 conference record last season.
"Our guys are fired to get Pac-12 conference play under way." Coach Graham said on Monday.
Now it is time for my famous three key ingredients ASU must accomplish to beat Utah.
1) Protecting Taylor Kelly
People like myself labeled ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly with the "game manager" tag prematurely. Kelly’s ability to create first downs out of nothing against Mizzou was mind blowing.
While watching Kelly work his magic was exciting, it was also unnecessarily stressful. When Kelly is forced to escape the pocket, it often shows ASU’s protection was not up to par. The Utah defensive unit under head coach Kyle Whittingham will present similar obstacles.
Utes defensive tackle Star Lotulelei's name characterizes his skills. The 6-foot-4 320-pound senior is almost unblockable in the trenches, earning All-Pac-12 honors in 2011. Louteli is surrounded by talented, featuring the Kruger brothers at defensive end (end Joe with a team-high 3.5 sacks, and Dave at tackle). The stout unit is unique because of their ability to rattle opposing quarterbacks without having to blitz often.
Therefore, ASU’s offensive line is up against a huge test. Contributing to the difficult task at hand for the Devils up front is their wide receivers inability to get open. Kelly had no turnovers through Week Two, and those games were picture perfect. On the contrary, when blocking broke down, Kelly had three turnovers by taking risky shots downfield.
Obviously Kelly has underrated wheels, but prefers sitting back in the pocket and dropping dimes. Against Mizzouri Kelly threw for a pedestrian 178 yards, but against Illinois accumulated 249 and could have been higher if the game was not such a blowout. The big discrepancy in stats had less to do with Kelly’s level of play, but more with the guys up blocking well. Pressure spells turnovers, which mean loses. ASU’s big men up front are not household names yet will play a vital role against Utah.
2) Limit John White IV
Heading into Week 3, Utes running back John White IV is off to a relatively slow start, carrying the rock for 215 yards and one touchdown after missing last week's game. The tailback's drop in production is slightly alarming but ASU has little sympathy because of Cameron Marshall. That being said, White IV is still averaging 4.2 yards per carry and is the clear go to guy.
Quarterback John Hays now commands the Utah huddle following the retirement of starter Jordan Wynn. Hays is not an ordinary second stringer, as he is a senior owning plenty of starting experience. The 6-foot-1 California native has been impressive since taking over, accumulating 350 passing yards, three touchdown and no interceptions.
Although those numbers may appear impressive, they are deceiving. Hays owns 12 career starts, and has never thrown 200 yards in a single contest. Utah's bread-and-butter is pound and ground defensive football. As stated above, Kelly is a playmaker but Hays to this point is a game manager. Hays does not have a reliable enough of a cannon to lead Utah back from behind.
Against ASU last year, Hays was awful, going 18 of 30 for 199 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. However, White still rushed for 85 five yards on 17 carries. The ASU run defense is inconsistent, but improvement was shown against Missouri, giving up a mere 126 yards on the ground.
To limit John White IV, ASU may stick with a four-man front. Defensive tackle Will Sutton is a monster, consistently applying pressure up the gut. If ASU keeps White under 100 yards, it should be smooth sailing.
3) Get Cameron Marshall Rolling
ASU has proven they can win without an effective Cameron Marshall. However, getting Marshall rolling provides the Sun Devils with a needed balanced attack. Coach Graham told media members before the opening day he expects Marshall to get about 30 carries per game. That certainly has not been the case; Marshall’s carried the ball only 25 times in three games!
The senior bulldozer’s ineffectiveness is clearly frustrating and surprising. In the offseason, Marshall was named to the Doak Walker Award watch list (best running back in the nation.) Talent is not the problem.
His 3.08 yards per attempt is sub par, but I personally think Marshall needs more opportunities. Fumble problems have been a factor in the struggles of Marshall, especially with Coach Graham preaching "own the ball." People also forget Marshall battled hamstring problems during summer camp, though those issues appear to be in the past.
Marion Grice and D.J. Foster provide great depth but cannot handle the workload of Marshall. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell needs to throw on 2011 tape and realize the weapon he is neglecting. ASU is currently averaging 42.7 points, which is solid. The offense seems to be rolling, but can be take it up a notch with Marshall at full strength.
Prediction: ASU wins 27-17