No. 15 ASU prepares for physical battle with 18th ranked Utah

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- No rest for the weary, nor Pac-12 title contenders.

Last Saturday, Arizona State emerged victorious—but not unscathed—from a tough battle with Washington on the road. The 24-10 victory, played through rainy and windy conditions, saw the now 15th ranked Sun Devils improve to 6-1 overall and 4-1 in conference play.

Being the Pac-12, yet another brutal test is up next.

ASU returns home this Saturday to face No. 18 Utah at Sun Devil Stadium in what will be the first ever meeting between the programs while both are ranked. More importantly, this is a match-up of the only Pac-12 South teams still in control of their own destinies. 

"The bottom line is we put ourselves in position, and we are going up against another 6-1 team," said ASU head coach Todd Graham. "The winner of this one puts themselves in the driver seat in the Pac-12 South."

Getting into that driver's seat will require the most physical effort of the year thus far.

The Utes are coming off a thrilling 24-21 home win over USC last Saturday in which quarterback Travis Wilson tossed a one-yard touchdown to Kaelin Clay with just eight seconds left to secure the win. Had the Utes not squandered a 10-point fourth quarter lead against Washington State on Sept. 27, Utah would be entering Saturday's game 7-0.

Leading the way for the Utah offense is junior running back Devontae Booker. The 5-foot-11, 203-pounder was a reserve for Utah's first four games behind Bubba Poole, but exploded for 178 yards off the bench in the loss to Washington State. He took over as the starter the next week against UCLA and has run for 489 yards in his three starts.

"The biggest difference in their team this year is their running back," said Graham of Utah. "He (Booker) is very physical. He makes you tackle him, he runs hard, and you can tell their line has a belief in him, and it’s a team that understands you need to run the football to win."

Booker will be a major test for a Sun Devil defense that has made great strides over the last three games, especially on the ground. Through ASU's first five games, they allowed an average of 163.2 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. Those numbers have dropped to 149 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry over the last three.

That success has a lot to do with the improvements up front, including focusing on more four-lineman sets with 360-pound Mo Latu and 300-pounder Demetrius Cherry earning first-team interior reps.

"We are big and physical up-front," Graham said. "We’ve got a bunch of big guys that aren’t going to be pushed around and we can stop the run. There is something about this group of guys that is really special. These guys have a will and a heart that is special. It was just about finding the right combination to get on the field.”

ASU's defense has also gotten better production from their second level after also going bigger. 

Over the last two weeks, Graham has used 230-pound junior Antonio Longino at WILL linebacker in place of true freshman 210-pound D.J. Calhoun. Graham admitted that using Longino at Devilbacker was a mistake, but the Sun Devils are now reaping the benefits. 

"Since we moved him to WILL linebacker he has played stellar," Graham said. "Even when he played Devil, what he did well was come off the edge. If there was one move that has really helped our defense the most, I think that is it. He has played solid and he is only going to get better."

Utah's offense is no one-trick pony, however. 

With a speedy group of wide receivers led by Dres Anderson (team-high 355 yards receiving, 16.1 yards per catch), Wilson can make teams pay downfield. On the year, Wilson has thrown for 1,027 yards with eight touchdowns and has not yet been intercepted.

ASU's secondary has been solid throughout the year, and they have allowed just 351 yards through the air over the last two weeks. They have also shown signs of returning to last year's ballhawking ways, with two interceptions of Washington quarterback Troy Williams twice last week, including Armand Perry's 61-yard return for a touchdown

To keep Wilson in check, the Sun Devils will look to continue their improvment with their pass rush. They posted a season-best five sacks against the Huskies, with two coming from defensive end Marcus Hardison.

"Marcus is the leader with those guys up front, and he has become a little more vocal," said Graham. "He is the guy that coaches those other players and they really look up to him. He’s playing really well right now and at a very high level.”

Hardison and his teammates may find some success getting to Wilson, as Utah ranks just 93rd in fewest sacks allowed (2.43 per game).

Offensively, quarterback questions return for an ASU team that will be looking to get back to their high-scoring ways.

Late in the Washington game, Taylor Kelly was hit in the head after his game-winning touchdown pass to Gary Chambers. He was tested for a possible concussion on the sideline, and it was reported that he had his helmet taken away, which often a sign of a failed test.

It was Kelly's first game back after missing the previous three due to a foot injury. Graham did not confirm whether Kelly had suffered a concussion, but he did assert that Kelly should be fine for Saturday's game. As with any possible head injuries, it's a situation that will be monitored closely all week.

Whether it is Kelly or junior Mike Bercovici behind center for ASU, the protection up front must be better.

The Sun Devils allowed a season-high seven sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss against Washington, and Utah enters Saturday's game ranked No. 1 in the FBS in sacks per game at 5.0 and second in tackles-for-loss at 9.4. 

Defensive end Nate Orchard has already racked up 11 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss, and is a top contender for the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award. He'll be attacking an ASU line that has struggled in recent weeks and now has been weakened by injury.

Left guard Christian Westerman left the Washington game with a leg injury, and it appears that he will not be able to face the Utes. Redshirt sophomore Stephon McCray will likely make his first career start in Westerman's place.

"Very doubtful that he will play this week, but it is not anything serious," Graham said of Westerman. "It is pretty probable that he will be back for the Notre Dame game, but still very doubtful for Utah.”

If the Sun Devil line can give their quarterback time, they should be able to make plays downfield against Utah's 98th ranked passing defense. ASU's Jaelen Strong currently ranks third in the Pac-12, and 14th nationally, with 106.3 receiving yards per game and has scored a touchdown in three straight games.

Rounding out the match-ups will be a focus on special teams with two strong units.

"I think this game is going to be a game where the best kickers in the league are going to be facing each other," Graham said. "That is going to play a big factor in this."

With two tough defenses on display, the punt game and field position battle will be key.

ASU's Matt Haack had arguably his best game as a Sun Devil, averaging 46.6 yards per punt with a long of 64 in the stormy conditions last week. His counterpart this week, Tom Hackett, is no slouch either, as he is third in the FBS with a 47.0 per kick average.

"I think their punter (Tom Hackett) is absolutely phenomenal," said Graham. "For us, Matt was really a weapon for us last week, and really has the potential to be a weapon for us. He’s going to have to go up against the best in the league and rise up to the occasion this week."

It's another week, another game-of-the-year for the Sun Devils. While they are focused on beating the Utes, they realize it's just one step towards their larger goal.

"We have a great schedule with these last few games, and all you have to do is win them," said Graham.

"We win the next four conference games, we will be in San Francisco. We win the next five conference games, we will be in Pasadena.”

Notes:

  • Saturday's game will kickoff at 8 p.m. PST with television coverage on Fox Sports 1.
  • ASU will wear black helmets and pants and maroon jerseys after a fan vote to decide the uniform combination.
  • Utah has lost nine straight to ASU. The Utes last win in Tempe was in 1976.
  • Utah's visit will mark the third straight ranked opponent ASU has faced at home. The only other time that has happened for ASU was in 1982.