The Arizona State Sun Devils are not mathematically eliminated from contention in the Pac-12 South. It remains highly unlikely that ASU will capture their second division title in program history, but they have a strong opportunity to improve their odds Saturday.
No. 15 Utah heads to Tempe boasting an elite defense and an offense that’s been clicking throughout conference play. They also will enter the matchup with a chip on their shoulder.
The Sun Devils stormed into Salt Lake City last season and dominated the Utes on their way to 30-10 route. ASU’s defense controlled the entire game, as they limited running back Zack Moss to 47 yards on 12 carries and made life miserable for quarterback Tyler Huntley.
Huntley threw four interception in that game alone, he has thrown four total picks this entire season.
ASU has struggled to force turnovers this season, it will be critical for them to make Huntley beat them throwing the football. If the Utes are able to establish the run with Moss and let Huntley get comfortable moving around it could be a long day.
It remains no secret that Arizona State is going to run the football. It’s the focal point of the offense and the coaching staff believes that running back Eno Benjamin gets better the more carries he receives.
This won’t be as easy of a task for the Sun Devils like previous matchups against Oregon State and USC.
Utah is third in the nation in total rushing yards allowed per game, as they’ve only surrendered an average of 81.1 yards on the ground. ASU has already faced the best and second best rushing defense this season in Michigan State and San Diego State.
ASU offensive coordinator Rob Likens understands that Benjamin must shoulder the load for the Sun Devils due to the lack of depth at running back on the roster. He says it’s a testament to the sophomore’s ability to improve throughout the game that gives them the confidence to consistently run the ball.
Another crucial aspect for ASU to have success will be if they’re able to sustain drives by converting on third and short. The Sun Devil offense was very good on third down in the win at USC, as they converted 8-for-15 against the Trojans.
Likens says this was an area the team addressed ahead of the Stanford game, but were finally able to execute last week.
“If we’ll just pick up more third and fourth or sixes we can keep drives alive,” Likens said. “We can get defenses tired, more fatigued and you have a tendency to score more points.”
In last year’s win in Salt Lake, ASU went 8-for-16 on third down and controlled the clock as they had the ball 13 more minutes than the Utes. The strategy this Saturday will most likely remain the same.
Likens and ASU realize how important this weekend’s game is, they like where they’re situated and feel they enter the matchup confident after the win against USC.
The task won’t be easy, and they know the challenge this year’s Utah team presents.
“We’re playing the best team in the conference I think hands down,” Likens said. “They’re the best in all three areas of football: offense, defense and special teams. You can’t have a let down because they’re physical and they’ll hit you.”