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ASU Football: First look at the Utah Utes

It's going to be a huge matchup for both teams Saturday night

Gene Sweeney Jr.

When the No. 15 Sun Devils' 2014 schedule came out, not many people could have anticipated Arizona State (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12) and No. 18 Utah (6-1, 3-1 Pac-12) becoming such an important game in deciding the final standings of the Pac-12 South in 2014. What's at stake here? Whichever team wins will have not only the first tiebreaker in the head-to-head matchup, but also a full game lead on the other team.

If the maroon and gold fall victim to Utah, the Sun Devils will have to hope and pray the Utes lose another game because Utah has also played one less game in the Pac-12 than Arizona State has. It makes this game critically important for Arizona State to win.

Utah's season so far

The Utes began their 2014 campaign with two easy victories over Idaho State and Fresno State respectively. Utah was in control the entire time against the Bengals, jumping out to a 35-7 lead on their way to a 56-14 victory. Junior quarterback Travis Wilson completed 13 of 18 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown in the win. It was more of the same the following week against the Bulldogs when Wilson passed for five touchdowns and the Utes created 526 yards of total offense to win 59-27.

On a stormy day in Ann Arbor, Michigan two weeks later, the Utes faced their first test in the Michigan. The Utes had just 81 yards rushing, but the Wolverines struggled mightily turning the ball over four times at home. Senior wide receiver Kaelin Clay also returned a punt for a touchdown that put the Utes up for good 10-3 early in the second quarter. Four field goals from sophomore kicker Andy Phillips also helped the Utes to a 26-10 victory.

In a surprising turn of events, Utah lost to Washington State in their next game at home in Salt Lake City. WSU quarterback Connor Halliday passed for 417 yards, including an 81-yard touchdown pass to Vince Mayle with 4:58 to play. to complete a 15-point comeback win in the fourth quarter for the Cougars, which upset the Utes 28-27.

Against what was No. 8 UCLA the following week, the luck turned in the Utes' favor. Andy Phillips made a 29-yard field goal with 29 seconds to play to give Utah the 30-28 lead. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley drove the Bruins down to the 37 yard line where Ka'imi Fairbairn missed a 50-yard field goal and missed again from 55 yards out as time expired, giving the Utes the win. Wilson struggled through the air for just 100 yards passing but Devontae Booker had 33 carries for 156 yards and a touchdown on the ground in his first breakout game of the season. Junior Kendal Thompson replaced Wilson at quarterback after three series against the Bruins.

Utah barely survived in Corvallis on Thursday, Oct. 16 too. Junior Kendal Thompson started the game at quarterback for the Utes before Wilson was inserted into the game in the second half by head coach Kyle Whittingham. Beavers' kicker Trevor Romaine sent the game into overtime with a 49-yard field goal as time expired to tie the game at 16. Romaine would later miss a field goal wide right from 37 yards out in the second overtime session and Utah capitalized on a 19-yard run by Booker, giving the Utes the 29-23 win. Booker ran all over Oregon State with 32 carries for 229 yards and three touchdowns. The Utes suffered in the passing game again with just 62 yards through the air.

Whittingham stuck with Wilson against No. 20 USC last Saturday and it paid off for the Utes who won on a touchdown pass from Wilson to Clay with just eight seconds remaining on the clock. It lifted Utah to a 24-21 victory over the Trojans in a hard fought game which everyone expected. The Utes were more balanced with 194 yards through the air and 137 on the ground. Both teams missed easy opportunities to score throughout the game, filled with redzone miscues, turnovers and special teams mistakes.

Utah on offense

The Utes offense has been weirdly effective this season. In the Pac-12 this year they rank last in the passing game, fifth in the run, and No. 11 in total offense, yet here they sit  among the best records in the conference. In fact, they rank No. 99 in passing yards in the NCAA this season, that's compared to No. 19 for Arizona State. A more pass heavy offense would be expected under first-year offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who did some very innovative things with the spread offense at Missouri, but the Utes have relied heavily on the running game. Former Sun Devil head coach Dennis Erickson is now coaching the running backs at Utah, and like at Arizona State, the Utes are using the entire field to get yardage however they can.

The Utes have quite the controversy on their hands at quarterback. Kendal Thompson was inserted after three series at UCLA, which Utah won, then started against Oregon State and was taken out at halftime in favor of Wilson but the Utes won that game too. Wilson got his starting job back against USC last week and won again. Wilson was still seeing a majority of the snaps prior to the UCLA game and is 81 of 143 with eight touchdowns this season and perhaps more importantly 0 interceptions. Thompson is just 28 of 47 for 301 yards and two touchdowns. While both could see time Saturday if things fall apart, this is Wilson's team, expect him to start for the Utes unless otherwise noted. Wilson is a dual threat but hasn't used it much this season, he's still very much the same quarterback the Sun Devils beat last season in Salt Lake City and his 6-foot-7 height can play to his advantage, allowing him to see the field with relative ease.

What has changed from last season is the situation at running back. Devontae Booker is a junior who transferred in from junior college in the offseason and beat out junior Bubba Poole for the starting spot this season. Booker is explosive, averaging 5.8 yards per carry and standing just 5-foot-11. He has eight touchdowns and is averaging 120.6 yards per game this season. Poole will occasionally get a carry, but it has been primarily Booker all season.

When Wilson does decide to pass the ball, the Utes love the big play and it starts with 6-foot-2, 190 pound stud senior wide receiver Dres Anderson who has 22 catches for 355 yards and four touchdowns this season. Behind him is junior Kenneth Scott with 25 catches for 252 yards and three touchdowns. The Utes still love to spread it around in the passing game, with five players over 100 yards receiving and six players with at least 10 catches. The Sun Devils will not only need to keep their eye on Anderson, but the rest of the receiving corps, any one of which could have a breakout game.

Every offensive lineman for the Utes has at least one letter under their belts, and while Wilson has only been sacked seven times this season, Thompson has been brought down 10 times in a shorter period of time on the field. This can be chalked up to inexperience and not letting the ball go quick enough, but its still averaging over two sacks per game and something the Sun Devils should try and take advantage of. Where this line excels is clearly in the running game given Booker's success this season. At 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, right guard Isaac Asiata has the least amount of experience as only a sophomore. The rest include junior Jeremi Poutasi at left tackle (6-foot-6, 320 pounds) senior Junior Salt at left guard (6-foot-2 315-pound), Siaosi Aiono is a 6-foot-2, 305-pound junior at center and J.J. Dielman is a 6-foot-5, 295-pound sophomore at right tackle.

Utes on defense

Utah runs a 4-3, and occasionally a 5-2 defense, giving up 21.6 points per game which ranks no. 29 in the country. The Utes are allowing 112.1 yards per game on the ground and 264.7 yards through the air as well.

The defensive line is highlighted by senior Nate Orchard at right defensive end. Orchard has 45 tackles, 13.5 for loss and 11 sacks this season. At 6-foot-3, 255 pounds Orchard is extremely mobile against larger offensive linemen. Sophomore Hunter Dimick anchors the other side of the line with 31 tackles, 8.5 for loss and seven sacks. The middle is incredibly young with redshirt freshman Filipo Mokofisi and freshman Lowe Loutulelei who have showed their immaturity and haven't had too much production this season and have mostly been backed up by the stellar play of the linebackers.

This plays well into the hands of the read-option employed by the Sun Devils and this might be the game where D.J. Foster finally gets moving on the ground. Orchard and Dimick are experienced enough to stay home on the line if Kelly keeps it, but this isn't Danny Shelton and Washington so the middle might be more open for Foster given the Sun Devils' offensive experience up front as well.

Junior Jared Norris anchors the linebackers as a roving type with 67 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. On the other side at more of a middle linebacker is redshirt junior Gionni Paul with 45 tackles and two for loss. Junior Jason Whittingham and senior Jacoby Hale have been plagued with injuries and haven't played most of the season.Replacing Trevor Reilly, who had 78 tackles and nine sacks last season seemed like nearly an impossible task but this group has done a solid job in his place.

The star of the secondary is senior Eric Rowe who has played corner and free safety with eight passes defended, an interception and 35 tackles. Senior strong safety Brian Blechen has 32 tackles and five passes defended. Even with what seems like impressive defensive stats, the Utes have let up their fair share of points. Utah, however, had one of their best games against an offensively potent USC team last week, only giving up 21 points and averaging just over an interception per game. Two of those picks belong to senior safety Tevin Carter who will also play some safety and has the biggest nose for the ball in the secondary.

Special teams

The Utes special teams have quietly become some of the best in the country on special teams. Tom Hackett has punted 44 times and averaged 47 yards per punt, he's only had 10 punts returned for a total of 25 yards. Sophomore Andy Phillips has 25 touchbacks on 45 kickoffs and has been reliable as a field goal kicker, hitting 14 of 16 and his last nine kicks over his last three games.

Over the course of the season, senior Kaelin Clay has become a lethal returner. He has averaged 29.4 yards per kickoff return with one touchdown and 13 punt returns averaging 22.5 yards with three returns for touchdowns. Utah has been in a lot of close games down the stretch and Clay's ability to give the offense phenomenal field position to start drives has helped the Utes tremendously.

Some issues and the big picture

Despite a well drawn up play at the last second for a touchdown to beat USC, the Utes have had their fair share of issues in the red zone. They've only converted 13 of 24 red zone chances into touchdowns. They're also averaging over 61 yards per game in penalties, but where the team has suffered most is in finding an identity. The situation at quarterback hasn't helped matters there either. The team has struggled to find a balance in the air and on the ground. A little bit of the "clutch gene," if such a thing exists, and a lot of luck have landed the Utes in this spot.

They are here, nevertheless, and this game could shape up to something similar to last year's 20-19 highway robbery by the Sun Devils in Salt Lake City. Arizona State is in many ways playing a version of its former self with an extremely tall quarterback in Wilson with Erickson on the staff. It's fitting then, that Arizona State will have to overcome this Utah team to find themselves once again on the national stage, potentially with a matchup against a top-5 team and a chance of College GameDay coming to town.

Nobody expected Utah to be here at this point in the season, much less see the implications of a matchup between Utah and Arizona State influencing the Pac-12 South race to the extent that this game will. Utah did something the Sun Devils could not in beat UCLA and that can't be ignored. It's clear Arizona State will need to prepare for a little bit of everything this week, because the Utes have the ability to hurt Arizona State everywhere. What's still murky is whether the team that beat the Bruins and USC will show up in Tempe, or the one that lost to Washington State and barely beat Oregon State in Corvallis.