With the way the Arizona State Sun Devils and the Utah Utes have competed against each other the last two years, it almost seems like Saturday's matchup at Rice-Eccles Stadium is set for a rivalry game.
Never mind the fact Utah heads into Saturday ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25. Never mind the fact this game could potentially decide the Pac-12 South champion despite only being seven weeks into the season.
The Sun Devils and the Utes fought two tough standoffs on both sides of the ball in the last two years. Two seasons ago, then-No. 23 Arizona State came alive late in the fourth quarter to beat the then-unranked Utes 20-19 in Salt Lake City. A year later, Zane Gonzalez drilled the game-winning field goal in overtime to put ASU over Utah 19-16.
The only key ingredients missing to make this into a real rivalry is hatred and bad blood. But the ASU coaching staff has too much admiration for Utah — especially this season.
"[Utah's] probably one of the teams in this league I got the most respect for," said ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell. "When you turn on the film, every week, they're going to come play. They're very aggressive in their style and in their nature."
When asked if tough road games to start the the season in Houston against the Texas A&M Aggies (a "neutral-site" game) and in Los Angeles against the UCLA Bruins help ASU, Norvell said they certainly give the Sun Devils more confidence heading into a hostile atmosphere at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
"I know they're going to be jacked up, but we've been in those games and in those situations, and now it's just time for us to go play and make sure our communication is on point and go execute the plan," Norvell said.
Norvell's offense has only rung up a combined 39 points against Utah's defense, and the Sun Devils will see an even more rugged Utes unit on Saturday. He acknowledged the Utes' tendency to cause a high amount of turnovers, as seen last week when California Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff threw five interceptions.
Norvell said to overcome this, the Sun Devils have to stick to the mantra coach Todd Graham and the coaching staff have been preaching all season long — focusing on themselves.
"The big focus is on us," Norvell said. "It's about making great decisions, locating the ball where it needs to be, squeezing the ball, keeping it high and tight, not giving them to create a short field, not giving them an opportunity to kill a series on our side. We just got to focus on doing our job."
Meanwhile, Norvell's colleague, ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, is tasked with containing Utah's improved offense that revolves around running back Devontae Booker, who has been averaging 28 carries per game. He also said the Utes' offensive line is as good as any opponent ASU has played all year and noted quarterback Travis Wilson, who threw for just 57 yards in last year's meeting against Arizona State, has improved with better decision-making.
Patterson knows Utah's balanced attack forces ASU to focus less on pressuring the quarterback.
"It starts with those two guys," Patterson said. "You have to be able to stop the run with No. 7 and No. 23. Then once you do that, you have to stay sound vertically...you have to make them one-dimensional."
Patterson said the biggest difference he notices in Utah's offense this year is how Booker now catches quick passes out of the backfield to start his run in the perimeter.
"When he catches the ball out in space, now you've got issues," Patterson said. "You gotta make sure you gang-tackle him, swarm-tackle him."
As the ASU coaching staff has many aspects to focus on, it certainly has brought a welcoming challenge as yet another key conference matchup awaits the Sun Devils.
"This is one of my favorite games to be a part of," Norvell said. "You're going to buckle them up a little tighter, tape them up a little tighter, and the team that's the most physical, the team that's able to run the football and the team that usually protects the ball usually wins."
- ASU running back Demario Richard (leg) was not wearing a green no-contact jersey, but remained limited throughout practice. Norvell said Richard is "coming along," but it seems his role will continued to be evaluated as gameday approaches.
- Wide receiver Frederick Gammage is expected to return Saturday after missing the last four games with an undisclosed injury.