ASU vs. Utah game preview

ASU vs. Utah game preview

Credit: Getty Images

TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 22: Quarterback Taylor Kelly drops back to pass against the Utah Utes at Sun Devil Stadium on September 22, 2012 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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by Brad Denny

azfamily.com

Posted on November 8, 2013 at 10:03 AM

Updated Friday, Nov 8 at 10:03 AM

No. 23 Arizona State (6-2, 4-1) at Utah Utes (4-4, 1-4)

Kickoff: 2:00 p.m. MST / 4:00 p.m. EST

Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, UT

Point Spread: ASU -7

TV/Radio: Pac-12 Network/620 AM

Weather: Lows 60s, partly cloudy, light wind

Series History: ASU leads the all-time series 18-6. The Sun Devils trounced Utah last year in Tempe 37-7.

ASU's Uniform Combination: Maroon helmets, white jerseys and pants

Fun Fact of the Week: Even with a scoreless game last week, ASU running back Marion Grice has more touchdowns this season (18) than 11 FBS teams have on the year.

ASU on Offense: The Sun Devils are rolling offensively in a way not seen in a long, long time. 

ASU has put up 50 or more points in three straight games, and the running game, which had struggled for most of the year, is now kicking into high gear. They'll be facing a Utah defense that is firmly middle-of-the-road in most aspects, but capable of being disruptive if allowed.

All over the field, ASU will have an advantage in talent, especially in terms of playmakers, so the key battle will come in the trenches. The one area Utah excels in defensively is rushing the passer, as the Utes ranked third in the nation in sacks. Trevor Reilly and Jacoby Hale are versatile defenders who play hybrid end/linebacker spots and leads the team with 5.5 sacks. Utah likes to bring pressure from all angles and all levels, so the Sun Devil line will need to bring their A-game to Salt Lake City.

If they can keep the Utes at bay, the Sun Devils should make plenty of big plays.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly is rolling, both as a passer and as a runner, and will have plenty of options.

Running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster are continuing to excel both as runner and receivers, and Grice continues to lead the nation in touchdowns with 18. Foster will see plenty of action as a wide receiver, where his speed should pose problems for Utah downfield. Utah has been better against the run, led by 300+ pound tackles Tenny Palepoi and LT Tuipulotu, and are allowing only 3.4 yards per carry on the year.

Where ASU should have the biggest advantage is downfield, where Utah ranks just 95th in the nation against the pass.

Wide receiver Jaelen Strong should be closer to 100 percent this week, and will be a match-up nightmare for the Utes. Last week, receiver Rick Smith had a nice rebound game, and Cameron Smith and Kevin Ozier continue to see action as ASU looks for a true No. 2 to emerge.

The Utes have a few capable players in the secondary in free safety Eric Rowe and cornerback Keith McGill, but as a group, there is a large discrepancy in talent and athleticism that should be on display on Saturday. They have struggled mightily in generating turnovers, making just two interceptions on the year.

Key Match-ups:

  • ASU Offensive Line vs. Utah Pass Rush: The Utes are third in the nation in sacks, and Kelly does struggle if pressured. The Sun Devils will need to hold back Reilly and company to keep the offense moving.
  • WR Jaelen Strong vs. CB Keith McGill: ASU's top weapon has been relatively quiet over the last two games due to an ankle, but he remains a deadly weapon. McGill has the size and experience to match-up with the 6-foot-4 Strong.
  • RB Marion Grice vs. MLB Jared Norris: Grice will continue to be the focal point of the Sun Devil attack, and will see plenty of Norris, a stout and rangy linebacker.

ASU on Defense: A face familiar to the Sun Devils is leading the Utes offensively. Former ASU head coach Dennis Erickson was hired this offseason, and has incorporated more passing into the scheme.

However, the man doing that passing, quarterback Travis Wilson, has been doing a lot of it to the other team. Wilson has 14 interceptions on the year—including six against UCLA—which is the second-highest total in the nation. The 6-foot-7 sophomore has a wealth of talent and is a very good runner, but he often struggles with decision-making, especially under pressure.

Look for ASU to do what they also do, and bring blitzes early and often in an attempt to rattle Wilson into turnovers. In particular, look for the hyper-athletic Carl Bradford to see a lot of Wilson, both as a pass rusher and defender to chase down Wilson on his runs. Bradford is on a tear lately, with 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss over the last six games. The Utah line has been average this year, and ranks 78th in sacks allowed.

Utah does have one of the most dangerous weapons in the Pac-12 in wide receiver Dres Anderson. The speedy junior is a good downfield weapon, as he averages 19.5 yards per catch on his team-high 33 catches. Look for ASU's top corner Osahon Irabor to get some downfield help from the safeties in stopping Anderson. Sean Fitzgerald (6-foot-4, 24 catches) and Anthony Denham (6-foot-4, 20 catches) give the Utes some big size at the position, but Anderson is far and away the most concerning for ASU. Due to a series of injuries, Utah's tight ends have not played much of a role in the passing game.

On the ground, it will be interesting to watch an ASU defense that has held Washington and Washington State to -3 yards over the last two games. Utah ranks just about in the middle of the FBS in rushing with over 174 yards per game.

Bubba Poole has inherited the team's top running back role, and he brings an effective speed element to the field, something ASU has struggled with at times this year. Poole is also an effective receiver out of the backfield, as his 28 catches are second only to Anderson. Lucky Radley brings more speed to the position in a reserve role, while veteran Kelvin York brings some power with his 220 pounds.

Whether they will have holes through which to run is a major question. ASU's run dominance has not coincidentally occurred since the return of defensive tackle Jaxon Hood. The defensive line has also seen star tackle Will Sutton return to his All-American ways, and Davon Coleman's impressive season continues. 

Utah will look to run first and foremost, but if ASU can limit the ground attack, it will force the game onto Wilson, which is exactly what the Sun Devils would like to see.

Key Match-ups:

  • Devilbacker Carl Bradford vs. QB Travis Wilson: Bradford is back to his hellmaking ways, and will be counted on to pressure Wilson into mistakes.
  • LB Chris Young vs. RB Bubba Poole: Poole has been a solid dual-threat for the Utes, while Young has been ASU's most consistent linebacker and top tackler.
  • CB Osahon Irabor vs. WR Dres Anderson: Anderson is Utah's top playmaker and a danger downfield. Irabor and the secondary will need to contain the speedy junior and limit his yards after catch.

Special Teams: This Saturday will see a battle between two of the nation's best kickers and Lou Groza Award semifinalists. 

ASU's Zane Gonzalez has made 13 consecutive field goals, and is second in the nation in scoring to his teammate Grice. Utah kicker Andy Phillips is 13 of 16 on the year, including an impressive 6 of 8 from over 40 yards.

The teams differ in the punt game. ASU's Alex Garoutte, a converted kicker, continues to be a solid, if unspectacular addition with his rugby kicks, while Tom Hackett has been great at pinning opponents inside the 20 for Utah.

Despite some potentially dangerous players doing the returning, neither team has had much success in either the punt or kickoff return game.

ASU's To Do List:

  • Start fast and get an early lead
  • Force Wilson to beat them with his arm
  • Win turnover battle

What It All Means: Like ASU, Utah is a markedly different team at home than on the road. Within the confines of Rice-Eccles, they have knocked off Stanford and nearly done the same to Oregon State and UCLA. However, they will face an ASU team that has the talent edge at virtually every position and is rolling after three straight dominant conference wins. Utah may keep the game close, but ultimately, the Sun Devils should be able to pull away and score win No. 7.

Prediction: ASU wins 45-24

 

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