(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
After Arizona State revived its season with wins over UCLA and Colorado, the Sun Devils are now competing in a self-deemed “single-elimination” tournament in the Pac-12 South.
Next up in their bracket is No. 4 Utah.
Having any success against the Utes on the road starts with stopping the rushing duo of senior running back Devontae Booker and senior quarterback Travis Wilson. Utah runs the ball on 61 percent of its plays from scrimmage, and that success on the ground allows it to milk the clock when it has a lead.
Booker in particular is putting together a special season, averaging 133 yards per game with six touchdowns on the season.
In Utah’s thrilling win over No. 23 Cal, Booker averaged 6.5 yards per carry on his way to a 222-yard, two-touchdown performance. His abilities are something the Sun Devils know they have to handle off the bat.
“We’re going to stop the run,” redshirt senior Devilbacker Antonio Longino said. “That’s our plan. (We have to) tackle him. He gets extra yards off breaking tackles.”
Yet the Sun Devils have showed they are more than capable of stopping the run. Despite facing two triple-option attacks earlier in the season, ASU ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, limiting teams to 138.8 yards per game. Most notably, ASU limited UCLA’s All-Pac-12 redshirt junior running back Paul Perkins to 63 yards in ASU’s win two weeks ago.
However, Booker arguably presents a more physical challenge.
“Most people, you hit them, and they go down,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “This guy, he makes you tackles him.”
Booker also is Utah’s leading receiver in the backfield, so it is clear he is an all-purpose weapon for the Utes.
Stopping the man handing the ball off to him is equally important. Wilson is Utah’s second-leading rusher, and his dual-threat capabilities have allowed him to average 7.1 yards per carry and tally three rushing touchdowns. Although Utah has four players averaging over 10 yards per catch, the Sun Devils know the focus has to be on Utah’s ground game.
“You have to be sound vertically,” Graham said. “But you have to stop the run.”
Sun Devils ready for the elements
Kickoff conditions are predicted to be chilly and wet with a forecasted 60 percent chance of rain.
It’ll be far off from the warm, sunny conditions in Tempe, and despite ASU not wanting to think the weather will play a factor, the Sun Devils’ loss to Oregon State in Corvallis last year is still something to consider. Even so, ASU is focused on its game plan and schemes for Utah more than anything.
“Everybody isn’t from Arizona, so we’re used to that (weather),” Longino said. “We’re going to make it come together.”
Graham reiterated the same thoughts on the weather playing a factor.
“Rain, sleet, snow, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter,” Graham said. “Matter of fact, it’d be kind of nice to have a little cool rain.”
The Sun Devils are in the best position possible considering their spotty performances in the first month of the season that had them at 2-2 and reeling. Taking away another road victory over a top-10 opponent would mean the world to ASU’s chances in the Pac-12 South and conference as a whole, and everybody is on that same page entering Salt Lake City.
“I don’t have to tell kids that this game is important,” Graham said. “You’re playing the 4th-ranked team in the country.”
– Sophomore safety Armand Perry was in cleats and a green, non-contact jersey for ASU’s final practice on Thursday.
– Graham said sophomore running back Demario Richard is expected to play on Saturday.
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at email@example.com