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ASU Football: Sun Devils and Utah battle for the top spot in the South

Richard Martinez/ House of Sparky

To understand the magnitude of the upcoming road game at Utah (3-2, 2-0 Pac-12) for Arizona State (5-1, 3-0) it must first be put in the context of the last time the programs faced each other in Salt Lake City.

Two years ago, almost to the day, the Sun Devils marched into Rice-Eccles Stadium ranked inside the top-20 with a 5-1 record and their sights set on a January bowl game. That flame was extinguished by a dominant performance from the Utah defense in a 21-3 rout. The Sun Devils were grounded, quarterback Jayden Daniels played the worst game of his career, and the team lost the next three games after to slip to 5-5.

No two teams are alike, but many of the same principal characters are still cast members on this 5-1 Sun Devil team. Daniels is still the quarterback, Edwards is still the coach, the defense remains anchored by Chase Lucas, Merlin Robertson, and Darien Butler.

The stakes remain high for these Sun Devils, and while their opponent appears weaker on paper, they are powerful in spirit, and led by a power-plant quarterback in Cameron Rising.

Utah is not the same No. 13 squad that suffocated Arizona State and nearly made the college football playoff, but they did dismantle USC 42-26 last Saturday at the L.A. Coliseum in a game that looks closer numerically than it actually was.

Charlie Brewer, a Baylor transfer, was expected to quarterback this team to a competitive 2021 season. Instead, he was a massive disappointment. He started three games, threw three touchdowns to three picks, and was benched. Brewer then hopped on the midnight train to the transfer portal, concluding an abrupt and forgetful career with the Utes.

He may have lost the quarterback battle in camp, but Rising has been a revelation after taking over the starting reigns from Brewer. The Utes have yet to lose a game started by Cam Rising, and in those two games against Washington State and USC, Rising has accounted for seven touchdowns while throwing for 443 yards. Watch him play long enough, and images of a swaggering Oklahoma-era Baker Mayfield come to mind.

On the other side, Daniels enters Saturday night with the most to prove in his Sun Devil career. Two years ago, the moment was much too big for a then-freshman quarterback. Two years older and wiser, Daniels focus is to make up for the disastrous game where he completed just four passes and averaged 1.4 yards per completion.

To compliment Daniels is the healthiest running game the Sun Devils have had since Week 1. DeaMonte Trayanum is shifting back into high gear after a leg injury suffered against Southern Utah. Rachaad White has broken out as both a fearsome runner and pass-catcher. Daniyel Ngata had a nice week last Friday against Stanford after being absent from the offense at UCLA.

This is also the best defense the Sun Devils have rolled out against Utah since the Utes joined the Pac-12. Defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce has his unit ranked first in scoring defense, first in total defense and first in sacks.

UCLA broke through the Sun Devils for 23 points in the first half two weeks ago. But in the last eight quarters, the group has allowed just 10 total points.

It is notable that both teams share a common non-conference opponent in BYU, with both games played in Provo and the home Cougars prevailing in both. Utah turned the ball over early and played catch up the entire way. Arizona State had an incredible 16 penalties that wiped any chance of a fourth-quarter rally.

Therein lies the potential pitfall for the Sun Devils. Most every metric points toward the visiting team as the favorites, except for penalties. Utah is the least penalized team in the conference. Arizona State is the most penalized team in the conference. If the Sun Devils have a sequel self-inflicted performance in the foul column, Utah is just as capable as BYU was to capitalize and take one away.

Arizona State will also play in their coldest environment so far this season. The temperature around kickoff is expected to be sub-50 degrees. Will the hostile environment created by the fans and the frost freeze up the Sun Devils?

Oddsmakers have set this game at a virtual 50/50. If this game is hosted in Tempe, it’s likely a Sun Devil victory. In Salt Lake City, anything can happen, and has in the past. This conference loves to knock off the top dog more than Pee-Wee Herman loved his bike. For the first time in a long time, the Sun Devils are the team with the target on their backs.

In order for Arizona State to come away with the victory, it will have to battle a combination of opponents. The Utes, the weather, the crowd, and the ghosts of the season-sinking loss in 2019.

Get over this hurdle, and the postseason picture looks a lot more rosy.