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ASU Football Opponent Primer: Utah Utes

Toughest game on the schedule?

NCAA Football: Utah Spring Game Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

ASU’s 2022 Football Schedule

9/1: vs. NAU - 40-3 W

9/10: @ #8 Oklahoma State - 34-17 L

9/17: vs. Eastern Michigan - 30-21 L

9/24: vs. #13 Utah

10/1: @ #7 USC

10/8: vs. #18 Washington

10/22: @ Stanford

10/29: @ Colorado

11/5: vs. UCLA

11/12: @ Washington State

11/19: vs. Oregon State

11/25: @ Arizona

This opponent primer from earlier this month has been modified because of...circumstances.

Sizing Up Utah

The reigning Pac-12 champions will make their first trip to Tempe since 2018 at the end of September, and they will be bringing with them one of the most talented rosters in program history. The consensus among college football minds has the Utes penciled in for 10-plus wins and the best odds at raising the Schwabacher Trophy in Vegas come December, as can be seen by their no. 7 ranking in the preseason AP poll.

Utah’s success last year was fueled by its shutdown defense. Allowing the fewest yards and points per-game in the conference, the Utes will need to replace their two leading tacklers in NFL first-round pick and 2021 Pac-12 defensive player of the year, linebacker Devin Lloyd, as well as his partner Nephi Sewell.

However, Kyle Whittingham has kept Utah’s defense and program as a whole among the nation’s most consistent winners as he enters his 18th year at the helm of Utes football, having not suffered a losing season since 2013. While reinforcements from the transfer portal and reserve pool will look to hold down the trenches, it’s the secondary that will lead the way for the Utes this year.

Sophomore cornerback Clark Phillips III was a stud last year and his 13 passes defended plus two interceptions turned Rice-Eccles Stadium into a no-fly zone for opposing quarterbacks. Strong safety Cole Bishop made his presence known on all levels behind Phillips, breaking up five passes and bringing down 54 tackles, with three of them coming from sacks. If Phillips, Bishop, and Illinois State transfer Clayton Isbell can keep up their production from 2021, passing against this team is going to be a tall task to conquer for Emory Jones and others.

Not to be outdone, the Utes’ offense has tremendous upside, as was on display late last year.

Utah has a rising star (literally) at quarterback with sophomore Cameron Rising, who after stepping in for Charlie Brewer midseason, revived the Utes offense with his cannon arm and quick feet. Throwing for nearly 2,500 yards and 20 touchdowns in his 12 starts, and really starting to showcase his feet in the Pac-12 title game and the Rose Bowl, the hype around Rising to rival USC’s Caleb Williams as the conference’s best dual-threat quarterback is real.

Rising isn’t the only star of this offense though. One of the biggest parts of Utah’s stellar red-zone offense the past few years has been the running game and junior tailback Tavion Thomas, who should eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground for the second straight year with Utah’s perennial top-tier offensive line.

The Utes have the quarterback for a passing game now and senior tight end Brant Kuithe should remain Rising’s top target as he led the team with 611 receiving yards last fall with six touchdowns. In Utah’s patented double tight end set, Dalton Kincaid reeled in eight touchdowns of his own to pace the program and the senior is primed for another big season alongside Kuithe.

The wide receiver room is likely this team’s biggest question mark with the loss of Britain Covey, but Solomon Enis (native of Phoenix and former ASU recruit) is a do-it-all receiver with speed and sophomore Devaughn Vele showcased some serious potential in limited chances last year with his big play ability. If one of these guys can step up, this team becomes one of the most well-rounded in the country.

Key Returners

We’ve talked about Cameron Rising and his potential to be this program’s best signal-caller since Alex Smith. But Tavion Thomas’s potential as a rusher is just as high with the elusiveness and speed that already got him above 1,000 yards last year. And with Coach Whittingham’s favor towards the run, we could be looking at a 2021 Kenneth Walker situation with Thomas.

Clark Phillips and Cole Bishop will both likely be preseason All-Pac-12 selections in the secondary and sophomore pass-rusher Van Fillinger will look to improve upon his impressive 5.5 sacks last year without Devin Lloyd. Junior Tafuna and Devin Kaufusi form a strong tandem at defensive tackle and should limit opposing running backs.

Key Newcomers

While Devin Lloyd is nearly irreplaceable at linebacker, Mohamoud Diabete comes to Salt Lake City by way of a Florida transfer who secured a quality 89 tackles in 2021 against the best competition in the sport. If Coach Whittingham can bring his game into a pass-defending light, watch out for Diabete. Another newcomer to the defense comes in safety Clayton Isbell, who dominated the FCS scene at Illinois State last year with 62 tackles and three interceptions. His wide range and ability in man coverage will make Utah’s already elite secondary even better.

ASU’s Path To Victory

Spoiler: It’s a tough one. An unprecedented amount of talent on both sides of the ball from last year’s team is no longer here, which doesn’t bode well against arguably the Pac-12’s top national contender in ASU’s conference opener when weighing it against last year’s matchup.

Emory Jones comes in from SEC country and he saw his fair share of top-tier defenses in his time in Gainesville. Unfortunately, he didn’t fare that well against Alabama (77.9 QBR), Kentucky (60.4 QBR), or LSU (29.8 QBR, 2 INTs).

So far in 2022, it has been very average.

On the bright side, Jones did adjust to the high-level defenses eventually, as he played well against eventual national champion Georgia, going 10-14 for 112 yards without any interceptions. If Jones can have an efficient performance like that against a historically great defense, his ability to extend plays and drives could translate to success against Utah.

Keeping Cameron Rising and Tavion Thomas on the sidelines for as long as possible should be Herm Edwards’ main focus to this game. And when Utah is on the ball, getting off the field on third down will be essential for the Sun Devils, as Utah hasn’t lost a contest where they convert 50% or more of their third down chances over the last eight seasons. Controlling possession, keeping the ball on the ground, and a high-speed defensive performance will be needed for Arizona State to find a way to win this one.

Utah’s Path To Victory

How the Utes can take their third straight matchup with the Sun Devils will be dependent on their offense. It took three 2022 Heisman candidates (Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Treyveon Henderson and CJ Stroud) to hang 48 points on the Utes in the Rose Bowl. That historically talented Buckeyes offense was one of three teams to reach the 30-point mark against Utah’s elite defense.

With the pass defense being their focal point this year, scoring on these Utes is going to be just as hard this year as it was in 2021. With much of the ASU defense beginning their first year as regulars, Rising and Tavion Thomas should be able to take advantage of a unit that would still be figuring it out come week four.

Should Utah’s offense pound the ground and run the clock like Kyle Whittingham loves to do, ASU’s defense won’t be able to keep up with their physical offensive attack. And with a takeaway or two by the star-studded secondary, the Utes have a clear formula to a 1-0 start in conference play.