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ASU Football: Sun Devils must slow down the Utes’ pass rush

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Like a broken record.

NCAA Football: Utah at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In many ways, last week’s win over then-No. 5 Washington was the worst game of the season for the Arizona State Sun Devils offense. But for the much-maligned ASU offensive line, things were looking up.

Against one of the fiercest fronts in the Pac-12, if not the country, the front five allowed redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins to be sacked just twice.

Next up are the Utah Utes, a team that rarely leaves a game without roughing up an opposing passer, especially against Arizona State.

In the last two games these teams played, both Ute wins, Utah has compiled 16 sacks, including 11 in a 49-26 win at Sun Devil Stadium a season ago. While that number looks bad on the surface, it gets even worse. Despite the departure of sack artist Hunter Dimick, the Utes have collected as many sacks this year as in last year’s matchup, including eight from defensive linemen.

Before those two consecutive wins, the Utes hadn’t beaten the Sun Devils since 1976.

Utah is coming off back-to-back conference losses to USC and Stanford, making this weekend a must-win if the Utes want a chance at winning the Pac-12 South for the first time.

Coach Todd Graham said this week that Utah is the most consistent program in the conference in terms of what to expect when you play the Utes, something echoed by redshirt sophomore guard Steven Miller.

“Every team, you kind of know what to expect what they’re about,” Miller said. “It’s always a good game to play in. It’s physical every year and that’s something you always look forward to.”

Miller made his first career start against the Utes last season in the 11-sack contest, but said he and the rest of the line won’t focus too much on what happened that day.

“We’re not the same team we were last year, so we don’t really think about that too much,” Miller said. “We’re going to focus on what they’ve done this year, who they are this year, who we are this year and how we’re going to exploit them and handle our business up front.”

Most of ASU’s starting linemen are different from when these teams last played, as neither senior center A.J. McCollum nor redshirt junior guard Sam Jones started against the Utes, though McCollum later entered the game.

After a shaky start, the group of sophomore tackle Cohl Cabral, Jones, McCollum, Miller and redshirt sophomore Zach Robertson have taken steps in the right direction protecting Wilkins, but have continued to struggle making room for senior running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard.

The highly-regarded tandem average 3.77 yards per carry this season and have combined for nine touchdowns, but haven’t consistently found holes enough to take enough pressure off of Wilkins’ right arm.

That challenge doesn’t get any easier this week, as Utah has held opponents to 3.7 yards per carry of their own.

Miller compared Utah’s line with that of Washington in the way they play, making for an intriguing and physical matchup in the trenches, yet again.

“It’s going to be a dog fight,” Miller said. “We’re just going to come out, we’re going to work and get ready for this weekend and take care of business.”