ASU vs. Utah: Game Preview, Key Match-Ups, Prediction and More

Carl Bradford

Arizona State (2-1, 0-0) at Utah (2-1, 0-0)

Kickoff: 7:00 p.m. PST / 10:00 p.m. EST

Location: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ

Point Spread: ASU -7 (Opened at ASU -4)

TV / Radio: Pac-12 Network / 92.3 FM

Weather Forecast: Low 100s/High 90s, partly cloudy

ASU Uniforms: Maroon/maroon/gold

Series History: This is the 24th all-time meeting between the schools, but just the second since 1993. Last season, ASU used a flurry of second half turnovers to roll Utah 35-14 in Salt Lake City.

Utah Last Week: Befitting their "Holy War" battle against BYU, last week's game came down to a crazy finish. The Utes blew a 24-7 fourth quarter lead as BYU closed the gap to 24-21, and had a chance at a 51-yard attempt to tie it on the final play. Star Lotulelei blocked the kick, and the Utah fans rushed the field...while the ball was still in play. Utah was penalized 15 yards, and BYU got another chance at the kick from 36 yards, but the end result was the same. The kick hit the upright and was no good, giving Utah the win.

ASU on Offense: Taylor Kelly and the Sun Devil offense ran into their first real adversity of the year last week in Columbia. After three miserable and unproductive quarters, Kelly channeled his inner Jake Plummer and played inspired football, leading the Devils on a furious rally that ultimately fell just short. Kelly showed great intangibles in leading the comeback, but needs to find better consistency against a tough defense like Utah in order to avoid needing such a rally. Despite his struggles, Michael Eubank will continue to see situational duty at quarterback.

They'll be facing a base 4-3 Ute defensive alignment that ranks 15th in the nation in total defense. The front seven of Utah—like Missouri—is very talented and brings an aggressive scheme to Tempe.

Getting the running game going will be both key and challenging for the Sun Devils. ASU's trio of backs—Cameron Marshall, D.J. Foster and Marion Grice—have had success in spots this season, but the group struggled on the ground last week. The Ute defensive line, led by All-Pac-12 tackle Star Lotulelei, will present a major challenge to knock off the ball, and a very deep and active group of linebackers led by Trevor Reilly and LT Filiaga are able to chase down the ball.

The Ute pass rush is also solid, with defensive ends Joe Kruger and Nate Fakahafua presenting a test for tackles Evan Finkenberg and Brice Schwab. They also blitz well from the second level, with Reilly coming off the edge frequently and effectively.

With the Sun Devil wide receivers continuing to struggle, ASU's passing game has mostly revolved around 3-back Chris Coyle and throws to the running backs. The Utah secondary has a pair of good senior cornerbacks in Ryan Lacy and Moe Lee, but the big news comes along the backline, where they will get their starting safeties—Brian Blechen (suspension) and Eric Rowe (injury)—back into the lineup. With the battle up front figuring to be a war, this would be a great time for the mostly absent ASU wide receiver corps to have one or two players step up and make plays on the outside and downfield to spread out the Utes.

Key Match-ups

  • ASU's interior OL vs. DT Star Lotulelei: There's a reason that Lotulelei is projected to be a top five pick in next April's NFL Draft. The 6-foot-4, 320-pounder is a dominant inside force, and can wreck havoc even when doubled teamed. The Sun Devils interior offensive line of left guard Jamil Douglas, center Kody Koebensky and right guard Andrew Sampson will need to limit Lotulelei's damage and manage to open enough holes to get the running game on track.
  • LT Evan Finkenberg vs. RDE Joe Kruger: Utah has been able to mount solid pass from their defensive line, and Kruger has been excellent thus far in that aspect. He leads the team with 2.5 sacks and can be a very disruptive presence. His battle with Finkenberg will be key in keeping the Sun Devil offense operating either efficiently or in disarray.
  • 3-back Chris Coyle vs. SS Brian Blechen: Over the first three weeks, Coyle has clearly become the team's top receiving target. His 17 receptions are more than double the next most productive receiver. With that success comes more attention from opposing defenses, and he'll face the very talented and versatile Blechen. Utah's 6-foot-2, 218-pound strong safety has the size and skills to keep with Coyle, but this will be his first game action of the season after serving a three-game suspension, so rust may be a factor.
  • ASU's Wide Receivers vs. Utah CB Ryan Lacy and Moe Lee: As mentioned above, the ASU wide receivers continue their season-long struggle. Against Missouri, their lack of playmaking saw more attention put on Coyle, and he was unable to get much going outside of short passes. They'll need to get on-track against Utah to help prevent the offense from getting bottled up. They'll face a talented and experienced duo in Lacy and Lee who will make that breakout a tough task.

ASU on Defense: While Utah brings one of the nation's best defenses to Tempe, the same can not be said of their offense, which currently ranks 105th among the 124 FBS teams. The Utes like to operate out of a one-back, three-wide set, and will also line up in the I-formation as well.

Just like last year, ASU will face Jon Hays at quarterback after an injury knocked Jordan Wynn out for the year. Hays made his first career start in last year's meeting, but has developed quite a bit in the interim. While he's not a dynamic playermaker, he's become a solid quarterback who can make smart decisions and an occasional play downfield.

Even with his improvement, it would be wise for ASU to focus on shutting down the Ute running attack and putting the onus on Hays. John White IV, coming off a 1,500-yard and 15-touchdown season, is once again the focal point of the Utah offense. He missed last week's game, and the reserves led by Jarrell Oliver struggled badly. White figures to be back this week, and clearly, Utah's offensive hopes will ride with him.

The Utah offensive line lost a pair of All-Pac-12 tackles from last season and the new unit has yet to really gel. They are a hefty group, with each starter over 300 pounds, but their performance thus far makes them an area for ASU's defense to attack. Sun Devil defensive tackle Will Sutton could have another big day against this line.

Utah is a run-first team, but they do have some dangerous targets. Wide receivers DeVonte Christopher and Dres Anderson are both 4.4 speedsters that will pose a challenge for ASU's secondary. Tight end Jake Murphy has cooled off as of late, but at 6-foot-4, 252 pounds, can be an inviting target for Hays underneath.

Key Match-ups

  • DT Will Sutton vs. C Tevita Stevens: Sutton has had a scorching start to 2012 and has been a major component in the Sun Devil defense's early success. Stevens is an experienced and heady 300-pounder who anchors the Ute line and will see a lot of Sutton on Saturday. If Sutton can get past Stevens and into the backfield, he can severely derail an already feeble unit.
  • CBs Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor vs WRs DeVonte Christopher and Dres Anderson: ASU's pass defense is off to an encouraging start, but they face a blazing fast duo that can attack the Sun Devils in different ways. Christopher leads the team with nine receptions and handles a lot of shorter routes, while Anderson is adept at attacking downfield, averaging nearly 16 yards-per-catch. With their size (each is 6-foot-1) and speed, Carr and Irabor will have a tough match-up ahead of them.
  • SPUR Chris Young vs. RB John White IV: White is clearly the Utes' best offensive weapon, and most recent indications point to him returning this week against ASU. The 5-foot-8, 188-pound White is a tougher runner than his size may indicate, and he gains yards in bunches. Through the first three weeks, Young has been making plays all over the field for ASU, leading the team in tackles (24) and tackles-for-loss (six). He's a leather-seeking missile, and if White is in the lineup, they will likely be on frequent collision courses.

Special Teams: If the Sun Devils don't seen an improvement here, they will have little chance on Saturday. Against Missouri, ASU's special teams units lost a fumble on a punt return, allowed a 44-yard punt return that set up a Tiger touchdown, bobbled a snap on a punt that forced a hurried kick that led to another touchdown and, most damning of all, botched a critical fourth quarter extra point. Other than that, it was fine...

Jamal Miles has yet to get on track in the return game, but his ability is known. Utah's punt coverage teams have been gashed so far this year, allowing 16.0 yards-per-return, so perhaps this could be his long-awaited breakout. Kicker Alex Garoutte still is an unknown this season, as he's attempted (and made) just one field goal in three games. Other than his bobbled snap, punter Josh Hubner has continually shown an ability to pin opponents deep, although his strong leg sometimes outkicks the coverage.

Charles Henderson is Utah's primary returner, and the redshrit freshman is off to a good start averaging nearly 15 yards, and last week had a 57-yard run back that helped set up a Utah touchdown.

Coleman Petersen, like so many kickers around the nation, has had his struggles. He's connected on just three of his six field goals, with a miss from 27-yards and he had a kick blocked last week. Petersen has a strong leg and can hit from beyond 50 yards. Senior Sean Sellwood has one of the strongest punting legs in the nation, and the Utes have also used Tom Hackett as a specialty punter to pin teams inside the five.

ASU's To Do List:

  • Stop the Utah ground game and force Jon Hays to beat them
  • Keep the speedy Ute wide outs in front
  • Make plays downfield in the passing game
  • Win the turnover battle
  • Play a complete 60 minutes

What It All Means: Given how things have unfolded around the conference over the first quarter of the season, especially in the South division, this game holds great significance for each team.

Not surprisingly, these two new rivals have several similarities. Both will be bringing fierce, aggressive defenses to the game, each offense is built around the run, and both ASU and Utah have had their issues on special teams of late.

This should be a hard fought, evenly contested defensive battle, with yards and points at a premium. Given how the team responded under duress a week ago, the attitude they have adopted under Graham and the home-field advantage, things are lining up well for a close Sun Devil victory.

Prediction: ASU wins 17-14

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

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