The Arizona State Sun Devils couldn't have asked to be in a better situation.
Even after ASU's tumultuous four-game start that saw a disappointing, underwhelming team, the Sun Devils control their fate toward a second Pac-12 South title with just one conference loss heading into Week 6.
Now, Arizona State has the chance to take sole control of the division with a crucial road matchup at the undefeated No. 4 Utah Utes Saturday.
"It seems at this point that the championship is on the line every single week, none more than this as we're going up against probably the best opponent that we've played all season," said ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici during Monday's weekly press conference. "We're excited about our match-up. We feel this is going to be a week that defines us as a program and as a brotherhood."
And the timing couldn't have been any better, either, for the Sun Devils, which have been showing noticeable improvement since they got shellacked at home against USC back on Sept. 26. ASU's special teams are the best they have ever been under coach Todd Graham, the defense put up another bruising performance against the Colorado Buffaloes last week and the offense showed more improvement on Saturday. Everyone around the program seems to have a better attitude.
Bercovici points a lot of the Sun Devils' perseverance of the last couple weeks to the close bond they've forged prior to the season at Camp Tontozona. Bercovici admitted he occasionally leads Graham's usual team huddle right before it goes into the locker room at halftime, which shows complete trust between the coaches and the players' leadership group.
"We have built that bond from Camp T., where players are used to going out to eat with players after hours, and it really does show in situations like that type of controversy, adversity to where we are now," Bercovici said.
Graham shows much respect to Utah
When Graham took the podium Monday, he had no shortage of respect for the Utes and spent much of his time praising Utah's season so far.
Right now, the Utes are arguably the hottest team in college football at the moment and should make the College Football Playoff if it started today.
"Obviously, it's a very difficult place to play," Graham said. "It will be very loud, a very challenging place. But that's going on the road in the Pac-12. That's the way it is. But obviously they're very deserving of their fourth ranking in the country, and they have — they play really — you can tell they really care about each other. They're a close-knit team, and, man, they play with a lot of physicality. So they've been very impressive."
Two years ago, the Sun Devils narrowly came away with a victory in Salt Lake City and still currently stands as one of ASU's biggest road wins in the Graham era. Last year's meeting in Tempe also wasn't exactly boring, as ASU won with Zane Gonzalez's game-winning field goal in a matchup with both teams ranked in the top 20.
Graham had shown great admiration for Utah coach Kyle Whittingham in the past even when the Utes weren't on the national radar.
"I've got a lot of respect for him," Graham said. "You look at what he gets out of his players and how hard his players play. That is the thing I'm most impressed of on tape is watching how hard his players play on kickoff cover, how hard they play on defense, how hard they play on offense. Every year it's a dog fight because he does such a great job. I've got a lot of respect for him. You can tell the character and toughness and fundamentals. They're very well-coached."
Graham took extra note Monday on Utah's combination of a stout offensive line and a powerful running game with Utah running back Devontae Booker. Graham understands the Utes have given up the least amount of sacks in the country and also called Booker as the Pac-12's best running back besides UCLA's Paul Perkins.
"I think their offensive line is blocking really well and that coupled with a great back like Booker is a big challenge," Graham said. "On the same hand, that's one we have to rise up and meet."
Richard to play, Perry remains out
Graham said he expects running back Demario Richard (leg) to play, despite Richard leaving last week's game against Colorado on crutches.
"We've got a good prognosis and going through treatment and stuff like that," Graham said nonchalantly. "But I expect him to practice tomorrow."
Meanwhile, Graham simply replied "no" when asked if he expected safety Armand Perry (ankle) to play against Utah. Perry suffered a high ankle sprain against Cal Poly back on Sept. 12 and missed the last four games.