Arizona State (6-2, 4-1 in Pac-12) at Utah (4-4, 1-3 in Pac-12)
Kickoff: 2:00 P.M. MST/4:00 EST
Location: Rice Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah
Point Spread: Arizona State (-7)
TV: Pac-12 Network (Ted Robinson, Glenn Parker, Drea Avant)
Radio: 620 KTAR AM (Tim Healey, Jeff Van Raaphorst, Doug Franz)
Weather Forecast: 60 degrees, winds under five miles hour
Series History: The Sun Devils have dominated the series history against the Utes with an 18-6 all-time record. Most of the games in the series have been played at Sun Devil Stadium, but Utah has had its most success when it hosts the Sun Devils. Arizona State is just 4-3 in Salt Lake City and Utah did beat Stanford at home this season which shows the Utes are capable of playing above their talent level in front of their local crowd.
Utah's Season to Date: Though the Utes are just 4-4 on the year, they picked up a season-defining victory in a 27-21 upset of the Stanford Cardinal in early October.
Utah opened the season with two straight victories over in-state rivals including a week one win against Chuckie Keeton's Utah State squad. After plowing through Weber State, the Utes dropped a 51-48 overtime decision against the Oregon State Beavers at home.
Utah's first road test of the season was a tough one as it traveled to Provo to take on BYU, but the Utes passed with flying colors in a 20-13 win. After a bye week, quarterback Travis Wilson threw six interceptions yet Utah hung tight with the UCLA Bruins throughout the game in a 34-27 loss.
The potential Utah showed against UCLA was finally recognized agains the Stanford Cardinal as a rugged Utah defense shut down Kevin Hogan's Cardinal in a the 27-21 win. Since the Utes upped their record to 4-2 with the win against Stanford, the season has taken a turn for the worst.
Utah fell 35-24 to the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson and two weeks ago, a listless Utah offense couldn't get anything going in a 19-3 loss to the USC Trojans. Utah's last two contests have taken place on the road and after a bye week to regroup, the Utes are looking forward to hosting Arizona State and altering the race for the Pac-12 South.
Arizona State on Offense: The Sun Devils proved that the left lane high-octane approach isn't just limited to the I-10 in the desert when they took on Washington State. Arizona State came into last Thursday's matchup averaging more than 45 points per game and it upped that total to 46.6 points per game after a 55-point outburst against the Cougars.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly threw for five touchdown passes and ran for two more as he showed off his dual-threat capabilities in front of a local contingent that made the drive from Kelly's native town of Eagle, Idaho. Kelly rushed for 66 yards and showed improved command of the Sun Devils' read-option look throughout the game.
"I'm getting more confident," Kelly said of keeping the football and running with it. "I don't know why, it's just kind of starting to hit me. I just went away from it in the beginning and now that I've done it, it's second nature."
Last season, Kelly ran for 516 yards and one touchdown and prior to a few weeks ago, he didn't look like he would come close to matching those numbers. But in his last two games, Kelly has racked up 150 yards on the ground which accounts for 48 percent of his season total. Why the sudden change?
"I'm not thinking about it anymore, it's just happening," Kelly said. "I'm just taking what the defense gives me."
Kelly has also been the beneficiary of Marion Grice's red zone success. Grice still leads the nation in scoring, but he didn't score a touchdown against Washington State as the Cougars defense locked in on him inside the 20-yard line. Kelly reaped the benefits, but says the Sun Devils aren't done finding ways to get Grice the football near the goal line.
"Whether it's him coming out on a route or him running the football doing what he does, he's going to find the end zone," Kelly said of Grice.
Grice hasn't just been stealing carries in the red zone, the Sun Devils' top back has been producing all over the field during the last two weeks. Grice has 252 yards rushing and more than 300 total yards in his last two outings which helped the Sun Devils to back-to-back 50-point games against the Washington schools.
This week against Utah, Arizona State will look to score 50 points for its fifth consecutive conference game, which would extend the program-record streak of four games the Sun Devils are currently on. What should we expect out of Mike Norvell's offense? More read option plays. According to Kelly, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
"For a defensive end to make that split-second decision to who's he going to take, me or Marion, it's hard for him," Kelly said of the predicament the read-option presents to opposing defenses. "If he wants to crash, I can pull it. If he adjusts and wants to come back, I can throw it out to Jaelen (Strong) or Rick Smith or somebody like that."
Jaelen Strong is a player that the Sun Devil coaching staff hopes to work back into the offense this week. Strong's five-game streak of having at least 100 yards receiving came to an end when he was nursing an injury against Washington, and he still showed the effects of the pain against Washington State. Strong appears to be close to 100 percent and even though the offense didn't show signs of missing his production, it's calming for quarterbacks to know their top receiver is close to full strength.
The greatest challenge for the Sun Devils this week will be neutralizing an attacking Utah front. The Utes employ a 4-3 scheme, a look that Arizona State hasn't faced in a while and the offensive line will be challenged. Trevor Reilly and Nate Orchard can get to the quarterback in a hurry and they like to shut running lanes down from the outside in, so tackles Evan Finkenberg and Tyler Sulka will need excellent technique.
If the Sun Devils can utilize the read-option to their advantage and force Reilly and Orchard to make a choice at the line of scrimmage, Arizona State has too many other weapons that can beat the Utes.
Arizona State on Defense: The Pac-12 is loaded with top talent, but this week the Sun Devil defense will have to contend with more than just talented players. The Utah offense is coordinated by former Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson who has helped engineer a significant turnaround in less than a season. While Utah has struggled at times, specifically in its past two games, Erickson recruited many of the Sun Devils' defensive starters and should know where their weaknesses lie.
If Erickson wants to beat the Sun Devils, his best shot is moving the pocket for quarterback Travis Wilson and trying to beat Arizona State through the air. Aside from Michigan State, Arizona State has had the nation's most dominant run defense over its past two games allowing a combined negative three rushing yards to the Washington schools.
Much of the Sun Devils' success has come from the dynamic duo of Will Sutton and Carl Bradford who have had no problem penetrating opposing backfields. Bradford has played at an All Pac-12 level of late and he registered a sack and three quarterback hurries against the Cougars on Thursday.
Todd Graham has been vocal about how well he believes both Davon Coleman and Gannon Conway have played and with Jaxon Hood improving his health on a weekly basis, the Sun Devils are morphing into the defensive line that experts believed they could be at the beginning of the season.
At the linebacker level, Graham continues to be impressed with the progress redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso has made. Fiso brings raw ability and a playmaker's instincts to the heart of the Arizona State scheme and he's cemented his role as a player the Sun Devils will build around into the future.
Chris Young leads Arizona State in tackles and he's been the most consistent Sun Devil defender on the season. Young will likely start at the WILL backer spot against Utah, but he can move to Spur if the Sun Devils feel Utah is running the ball effectively on the outside. The one question mark for Arizona State has been the Spur linebacker spot, and Laiu Moeakiola took more reps behind Anthony Jones at the position in practice this week.
After a few average performances, safety Alden Darby came back with a vengeance against Washington State. Darby showed off his hitting ability and racked up eight tackles to lead the team against the Cougars.
At cornerback, Osahon Irabor suffered a minor injury against Washington State, but Lloyd Carrington proved he's more than capable as a replacement. Carrington saw extended playing time as the Sun Devils adjusted to the pass-happy Cougars' and could more of a role this week as Irabor is still feeling the effects of his injury.
Graham believes that safety Damarious Randall has finally hit midseason form and together with Robert Nelson, Carrington, Irabor and Darby, the Sun Devil secondary will have opportunities to bait Travis Wilson.
The success of the Arizona State defense starts with its front seven. When the defensive line is at its best, the secondary is able to take advantage of errant throws and play the ball with less pressure. Expect that to happen against Utah.
The Final Breakdown
Utah has the look of a team that's capable of hanging with any opponent in the Pac-12. The Utes have athletes, a great coaching staff, and the benefit of a decisive home field advantage. Coach Kyle Whittingham shouldn't have a problem motivating his team for this game, as a win puts the Utes in excellent position to make a bowl game this year.
Dennis Erickson is a man the Utes are happy to have on their side, especially this week, but the former Sun Devil coach's knowledge of his old team shouldn't be enough to push Utah over the top. Like most defenses, Utah will have an exceptionally difficult time containing the Sun Devils' offense as the playmakers appear to be hitting their strides. Arizona State is the type of team that can have three skill position players have off days, and still hang 40 on its foe.
Todd Graham says it every week, but this game will come down to turnovers. Arizona State could have turned the ball over five times at Washington State, and the Sun Devils still may have won by two touchdowns. If the Sun Devils commit costly errors this week, the Utes will make them pay.
On the other sideline, Travis Wilson has shown a propensity for interceptions and he isn't great when facing pressure. Anthony Barr and UCLA got after Wilson to the tune of three sacks and six interceptions and the Sun Devils' defensive line is more talented as a whole than that of the Bruins. If Arizona State can hold the Utes below four yards per carry and force Wilson to move in the pocket and beat the secondary through the air, the Sun Devils have a shot to run away with this game.
With the way Arizona State is playing, it would be surprising to see a total collapse. The Sun Devils are coming off of three straight 50-point games and the Utes mustered just three points against USC, so it's clear which team is playing more dominant football at the moment. Expect Utah to put up a valiant fight and for the score to be closer than most anticipate, but the Sun Devils shouldn't have a problem escaping Salt Lake City with a 'W'.
Score Prediction: Arizona State 31, Utah 24