After proving the critics wrong with a dominant win last week, the Arizona State Sun Devils are faced with their second consecutive tough road game this Saturday. The Utah Utes are patiently waiting for the Sun Devils, and while an initial look at Utah doesn't show a formidable opponent, this is the same team that beat Stanford in Salt Lake City four weeks ago.
Arizona State hasn't lost to the Utes since they joined the Pac-12 two years ago, but for the first time since the conference expansion, the two teams share some familiarity. Dennis Erickson, who coached the Sun Devils from 2007-2011, joined the Utah staff this year as co-offensive coordinator. Erickson was brought in to help former Utah quarterback and current co-offensive coordinator Brian Johnson improve his play-calling and game management.
The move hasn't exactly turned Utah into a powerhouse, but the Utes have looked improved on offense in spurts this season. The problem for Utah comes in protecting the quarterback, and when opposing teams create pressure, it rarely ends well for the Utes.
Matchup of the Week: Carl Bradford vs. Jeremiah Poutasi
I really believe the winner of this matchup will decide the game. First, the Sun Devils are going to score points. At this point in the season we know what Arizona State's offense is going to do, and that's not changing this week.
It's the defense that has seen its ups and downs, but lately the D in Tempe has been dominant. Todd Graham and his deep defensive coaching staff have had this unit playing at an elite level since the Notre Dame loss. The rush defense problems finally seem solved and Utah isn't a running powerhouse.
The Utes do have a nice young quarterback in Travis Wilson. The sophomore has demonstrated improvement at times this year, making his progressions and showing lots of raw talent. But where he still struggles is at the line, changing plays and adjusting his protection. That won't get any easier this week.
Bradford has been a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks since the Notre Dame game. He added some weight in the offseason and seemed to struggle a little early on (sound familiar?), but lately Bradford has had his way with opposing tackles, tight ends, running backs and quarterbacks. The redshirt junior has 5.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, 24 solo tackles - good for third on the team - and 4 pass deflections.
His first step is as good as any in college football right now, and he isn't just a speed rusher anymore. Bradford has learned how to get his hands under the pads of his blocker and move the pocket, then adjust and hit the quarterback if he rolls to Bradford's side. Bradford has also learned how to cover running backs and tight ends, a remarkable development for a player who was a pure edge rusher in 2012. He is playing himself into first round draft pick consideration, if not this year then certainly next.
Poutasi, meanwhile, is the youngest starter on Utah's line. The Utes as a team are giving up a little over 2 sacks per game. Poutasi is a load at 6-foot-5, and 345 pounds. His problem? That size is not exactly a chiseled 345 pounds.
A right tackle in high school, Poutasi has great strength in his upper body. His issue is that he lacks leverage in the pass blocking. Poutasi also struggles with footwork. He is sloppy and tries to rely too much on brute strength.
In Poutasi's biggest challenge this season, the tackle fell flat against UCLA. Anthony Barr, the best rush linebacker in the country, had two sacks and was in Wilson's face all night, disrupting passing plays while the Bruins picked off six passes.
In that game, Poutasi showed poor technique against a speed rush. Barr was able to turn the corner with consistency and power through weak attempts at pushing him wide.
On top of Barr's two sacks, Poutasi also allowed the Bruin to hit Wilson on his first interception, and Barr was also solely responsible for UCLA's only other sack, forcing Wilson to step up and right into the grasp of Keenan Graham.
Bradford is as close of a player to Barr as there is in the Pac-12. While he isn't as physically imposing, Bradford has an even quicker first step and is deceptively strong. In fact, Bradford might be the strongest pound-for-pound player at Arizona State. Poutasi is going to have problems with Bradford, and Utah is going to need to devise a plan to help him out.
When the Utes have to keep running back Bubba Poole in to block, it takes away a big part of the Utah passing attack. Poole is currently second on the team with 28 receptions. He is Wilson's safety valve, and while Poole isn't a threat to take a check down to the house, he is capable of making catches on third down to extend drives. But he can't do that if he has to help Poutasi block Bradford, and at some point, it's likely he will.
The other problem for Utah is Will Sutton. The Utes can't slide the line over to help Poutasi because Sutton will devour the interior linemen. This means Poutasi is pretty much on his own to stop Bradford. If he can't, Utah will have to change a lot of what it does on offense, and that will all but guarantee Arizona State a win in Salt Lake City.