(Photo: Brett Deckert/WCSN)
It’s the final home game of the 2016 season for Arizona State, and senior night this year will come with the concern of whether the Sun Devils will even finish with a winning record—something that seemed like a formality just a couple of weeks ago.
The No. 15 Utah Utes are one of three teams standing in ASU’s way of turning its season from good to bad and back to good. As the pivotal matchup gains headway towards a rare Thursday night matchup, here are five storylines for a game that could determine a lot going forward the Sun Devils.
5. What will the injury report look like?
The amount of injuries the Sun Devils suffered before and into their last game against Oregon was unheard of. In fact, it was larger than Todd Graham claims he has ever had as a head coach.
As far as players who are expected to return to the field go, quarterback Manny Wilkins is the most important. He has practiced most of the past couple weeks after sitting out against Oregon.
Defensive backs Armand Perry and Kareem Orr also appear to be probable. Perry has missed the last two games with a foot injury, while Kareem Orr, the team’s top cornerback, did not play against Oregon.
Demario Richard has been a constant presence at practice after being a late removal against the Ducks. Barring any late setback, he seems primed to play on Thursday.
The offensive line is likely to take the biggest hit. A.J. McCollum is still uncertain with a personal issue that has sidelined him the past few weeks. Sam Jones and Stephon McCray, who have combined for 16 starts this season, are both questionable. Tyler McClure has been getting reps over McCollum at center, while freshmen Steve Miller and Zach Robertson are expected to start for Jones and McCray if need be.
4. Which ASU run defense will show up?
Statistics show that the Sun Devils front seven has experienced assorted difficulties when tasked with stopping the run. The unit is currently 16th in the country in run defense, but have had the virtue of facing three different Air Raid teams that rarely run the ball.
Utah is 33rd in the country in rushing yards and feature Joe Williams, in addition to quarterback Troy Williams, who is a threat on his feet.
The Sun Devils have struggled against Oregon, USC and Colorado, three teams that frequently run the ball, allowing 717 rushing yards in that trio of contests.
3. Can the Sun Devils secondary perform against one of the weaker quarterbacks in the Pac-12?
Getting Perry and Orr back as expected will be a big help to the secondary, which is looking to rebound after allowing nearly 500 yards to a true freshman quarterback.
Williams has only a 54 percent completion rate and five interceptions, while averaging exactly one passing touchdown per game.
If there ever were a chance for the worst ranked pass defense in the country to have shining game, Thursday would be it.
2.How effective can Manny Wilkins be?
There are a lot of questions about Wilkins’ production, and rightfully so. He didn’t look like himself when he played injured against Colorado. Wilkins rebounded against Washington State for the two drives that he played, but his inconsistency as of late is worrisome for Sun Devil fans.
If Wilkins can return to be the same dual threat quarterback that lit up the scoreboard against Texas Tech and Cal, it can alleviate some of the stress off of Richard and Kalen Ballage to produce at running back and may expose some holes in the above average Utah defense.
1. What are some of the long-term effects of this game?
The 2016 season started off with the Sun Devils surprising many people, and they even found their way near the top 25. Now, partly due to injuries, they are on the verge of dropping to .500 and losing their fourth consecutive game.
While you can attribute a variety of factors to this, a loss on Thursday would be a step backward, considering ASU heads on the road next week to face Washington, the No. 4 team in the country. It may come down to the season finale against rival Arizona to determine whether the Sun Devils can avoid finishing the season with a losing record, something that seemed out of the realm of possibility not too long ago.