After a much-needed bye week, the Arizona State Sun Devils will host the No. 13 Utah Utes in a Thursday night showdown at Sun Devil Stadium.
The Utes, coming off an idle weekend themselves, look to win their eighth game of the year, hoping to keep pace atop the Pac-12 South Division alongside the No. 16 Colorado Buffaloes and 26th-ranked USC Trojans.
With the Sun Devils nearing full strength, expect them to battle diligently with the Utes. Below, we take a more in-depth look at Utah and what this year’s team brings to the table.
Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham
Key Players: Joe Williams (No. 23, RB), Troy Williams (No. 3, QB), Tim Patrick (No. 12, WR), Cory Butler-Byrd (No. 16, WR)
Key Players: Hunter Dimmick (No. 49, DL), Lowell Lotulelei (No. 93), Dominique Hatfield (No. 15, CB), Marcus Williams (No. 20, DB), Sunia Tauteoli (No. 19, LB)
Earlier this week, ASU coach Todd Graham hailed Utah as one of the top teams in the conference, highlighting the program’s tough play along the offensive line. The unit’s consistency as of late has been the key to the success of the Utah rushing attack, which defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said his defenders will need to contain this week.
Joe Williams, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound back who reportedly can clock a 4.35 40-yard dash, returned from a five-week retirement with a vengeance. Since his sabbatical, Williams has rushed for at least 172 yards and a touchdown in each of his past three games, after only rushing for 65 yards on 22 attempts through the first two games of the year prior to briefly stepping away from the sport.
Williams’ play, combined with the efforts of Utah’s offensive line has enabled the Utes to incorporate more play action looks. As a result, a team which already appeared to favor attacking opponents vertically through the air has done so effectively. Troy Williams, a former signal caller for the Washington Huskies, ranks fourth in the conference averaging 209.8 yards per game. The junior’s mobility has also been a factor, allowing the Utes to more frequently utilize the run-pass option along with other various offensive calls.
Where the ASU defense needs to be careful
This week, the battle starts in the trenches. Utah implements an interesting assortment of blocking schemes, particularly in regards to combination blocks and pins/pulls that are phased in.
For example, below is what appears to be a variation of the counter sweep the Utes ran against the UCLA Bruins earlier this season (correct me in the comments if you know what play this is exactly, thanks).
Watch as both the left tackle and left guard pull across the formation through the B gap, filling the hole created at the snap by the right guard and right tackle, who combine on an duece block on a UCLA defensive lineman, before the right tackle surges ahead to the second wave of defenders, reaching a UCLA linebacker to pin him away from the play.
Meanwhile, in the backfield, the running back takes a jab step to the left, prior to cutting and receiving the ball going right. The quarterback sells the play left too, turning to hand the ball off to the left before completing his 180-degree turn while giving his tailback the ball.
As this is happening, a UCLA linebacker is tracking over while a safety is dropping to fill the run lane through the B gap, however, the pulling guard takes the linebacker out, while the tackle erases the safety. The result is a clear path for the running back to burst through. In fact, the play was so effective, the Utes scored on it later in the game, too.
However, while this—along with other more conventional running plays—is being focused on here, don’t be surprised to see Utah use the run-pass option out of a Trio set, and maybe even go tempo from the set amidst hammering the interior of the ASU defense often.
The Sun Devils will need to be stout and play assignment-sound football in order to stifle the Utes’ varied running game, but need to do so while still accounting for their big-armed, mobile quarterback in Troy Williams. His mobility has added another dimension Utah hasn’t been able to incorporate in previous years, and his experience and poise been an integral reason as to why the Utes are considered a top-15 team.
ASU will be forced with determining whether or not they’ll want to sit back in coverage—as Washington did in the above clip—and allow Williams to take what’s given, or risk conceding a play deep downfield by aggressively pressuring him. Should Kareem Orr be healthy, a matchup against Utah receiver Tim Patrick could be the battle to watch.
Where ASU has the advantage
While Cory Butler-Byrd is expected to play this week, aside from he and the Williamses, the Sun Devils won’t have to worry about facing a team with dynamic athletes who are threats to score whenever they have the ball. This Utah team will have to outmuscle ASU at the line of scrimmage in order to win. A healthy Sun Devil defense may be able to take on the challenge, as opposed to being asked to defend speedsters in space.
The Utes’ defense is stout up front, as has been the trend during the Whittingham era.
In regards to personnel, Lowell Lotulelei and Hunter Dimmick are men among boys; Lotulelei plugs up the interior, while Dimmick patrols the edge. I noticed a tendency for the Utes to employ a five-man front, though the Utes haven’t appeared to be the aggressor defensively all too often. Against USC was probably the most aggressive game I watched, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the team is in the lower quarter of the conference in blitz percentage. That said, the Utes do employ several different looks and alignments pre-snap to keep offenses off-kilter.
Where the ASU offense needs to be careful
The Utes are capable of loading the box against the run, but likewise are able to generate pressure without blitzing, as aforementioned. That said, ASU’s offensive line will need to put on its best performance yet to allow the Sun Devil offense—particularly, the running game—to flourish. Let alone protect the quarterback.
The ASU offense will also need to make sure it takes care of the football, as since Whittingham has been Utah’s coach, the program has been amongst the best at generating turnovers. This week, the Utes are returning one of their best defensive playmakers in Marcus Williams, who has three interceptions and two fumble recoveries in seven games this year.
Where the ASU offense has the advantage
Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has played most of his hand after using some trick plays against Oregon, but there’s reason to think there’s still more to come. The Utes were susceptible to trick plays against other opponents this season, most recently Washington. The Sun Devils should be able to pull off something, should they try to.
Additionally, the Utes’ defense concedes 237 passing yards per game. Thursday will mark Tim White’s final home game, and it’s almost misinformed to not expect him to not perform well, should he be fully healthy. He could be the X-factor in this one.
Games Viewed: Utah @ UCLA (2016, condensed), Washington @ Utah (2016, condensed), USC @ Utah (2016)