(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
First place in the Pac-12 South is on the line when the No. 14 Arizona State Sun Devils host the No. 17 Utah Utes on Saturday night in Tempe.
The Utes (6-1, 3-1) are tied with Arizona for second in the division behind the Sun Devils (6-1, 4-1).
Snapshot of Utah
The Utes are one of the surprise teams in the Pac-12 this season. After a 4-2 start last season, which included a stunning 27-21 win against Stanford, the Utes lost five of their last six to finish with a 5-7 record and missed out on a bowl game.
Quarterback Travis Wilson struggled with a thumb injury and missed the last three games due to a concussion.
Wilson’s struggles were evident against the Sun Devils last season when he finished 6-for-21 passing for 123 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Despite his struggles, the Sun Devils needed a fourth quarter rally to defeat the Utes 20-19 in Salt Lake City.
This season Wilson is healthy and having a terrific year. He has only thrown for 1,027 yards, but he has eight touchdowns and zero interceptions, compared to last season when he threw 16 touchdowns and 16 picks.
On the other side of the ball, Utah once again has a stingy defense. The Utes rank in the 50s in total defense but they are plus-six in turnover margin. They are only giving up 2.8 yards per carry, and they lead the nation in sacks, with 35 in seven games.
The Utes only loss this season was their conference opener to Washington State, 28-27. Since then they have won at UCLA, 30-28, at Oregon State, 29-23 in double overtime, and against USC, 24-21.
Matchup to Watch
Arizona State’s offensive line versus Utah’s defense.
Last week against Washington, Taylor Kelly was sacked seven times. Of course, it was Kelly’s first game back after being injured for six weeks, but this could still be an issue for the Sun Devils as they take on the top sack defense in the country.
The Sun Devils also only managed 105 yards on 43 carries (2.4 yards per carry) against Washington. In their last four games, the Sun Devils are averaging 97 yards rushing per game, and averaging 2.8 yards per carry.
The Sun Devils also may also be without left guard Christian Westerman, who suffered a knee injury against Washington. The Sun Devils’ struggles on offense and a shuffle in the offensive line could create an advantage for the Utes that could win them the game.
ASU Wins if…
The defense can create turnovers.
Obviously, this is easier said than done. Utah has given the ball away four times all season. Still, the Sun Devils have forced five turnovers in their last two games.
Those were against less efficient offenses in Stanford and Washington, but that makes turnovers even more critical. If Utah’s defense does have success against the Sun Devil offense, then the Sun Devil defense needs to help and create extra possessions by forcing turnovers.
ASU Loses If…
Taylor Kelly and Jaelen Strong cannot make plays in the passing game.
The Sun Devils cannot run the ball lately. The Utes are excellent at stopping the run. This means Taylor Kelly may have to win the game with his arm.
The Utes are 98th in the country in pass defense, allowing just under 265 yards per game. In their last game against USC, the Utes gave up 110 yards receiving to Nelson Agholor. Although the Utes won the game on a last second touchdown, it shows there is vulnerability in the secondary.
Strong is averaging 106.3 receiving yards per game and is primed to have a big game against the Utes. If he cannot, it could be a long night for the Sun Devils.