(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Arizona State hasn’t beaten a top-5 team in nearly two decades.
No. 4 Utah hasn’t beaten ASU in nearly four decades.
But when the two teams clash on Saturday night in Salt Lake City, the only thing that matters is what is up for grabs: control of the Pac-12 South.
ASU and Utah couldn’t have had more distinguished narratives through the first half of the season. Some were picking ASU as a dark-horse contender to make the College Football Playoff while Utah wasn’t expected to make much noise at all. While ASU sputtered to begin the season, the Utes have skyrocketed up the rankings behind wins over Michigan, Oregon and California.
Although Utah is the side with an unblemished record, ASU is on its own roll after beating up UCLA on the road and dismantling Colorado in Tempe.
The Sun Devils stymied UCLA’s redshirt junior running back Paul Perkins, keeping the standout to just 63 yards on the ground, and ASU head coach Todd Graham will need a repeat performance when his team lines up against one of the toughest rushing attacks in the conference.
Senior Devontae Booker is as much of a workhorse running back as any other in the country, averaging 28 carries per game as well as leading the Utes in receptions. Any way Utah can get Booker the ball, it does it, and for good reason. Booker is a compact, physical back, and he is coming off what was potentially his best game of the season.
In Utah’s impressive win over Cal, Booker tallied 222 yards and two touchdowns from the ground, and it’s a regular sight to see him almost single-handedly keep the offense going.
If ASU wants to sniff any sort of success, it must limit Booker and force senior quarterback Travis Wilson to beat the Sun Devils through the air. As much as Wilson is a running threat of his own – he averages 7.1 yards per carry – ASU must generate pressure to disturb Wilson from staying in rhythm on the bounty of quick-step drops Utah calls.
The Sun Devils tallied four sacks on Wilson last season, but Utah is tied for third in the country allowing just two sacks this season. More critically than getting sacks, forcing Wilson to move within the pocket while keeping him from scrambling for big gains is the puzzle ASU will have to put together.
On the other side of the ball, ASU is tasked with facing the team that held it to its lowest point totals over the last two seasons. With that in mind, this Utah unit isn’t the same as last season’s that led the Pac-12 with 55 sacks. Instead, this unit thrives on taking advantage of mistakes.
The Utes have 12 interceptions this season, five of which coming off Cal’s Jared Goff. ASU preaches ball security, something that plagued it earlier in the season, and that battle is predictably critical in this game as well.
In a matchup between a team that came out nearly nowhere to climb to national prominence and a team finally looking like what people thought it’d be from the start, control of the Pac-12 South could shift dramatically depending on the result.
Matchups to watch
Devontae Booker vs. ASU’s defense in the open field
ASU’s pressure-centric defense often relies on its linebackers and secondary to make plays in the open field in order to prevent big gains. As a result, redshirt junior linebacker Salamo Fiso and redshirt senior safety Jordan Simone rank second and fourth in the FBS in solo tackles, respectively. Sophomore Christian Sam lands in the top-30 as well.
However, the defense has preached a mindset of gang tackling as Booker presents one of the toughest running backs to bring down individually. ASU has done well against the run, and at time it was the Sun Devils’ strongest trait as a team, but Booker will force multiple Sun Devils to perform sound tackling techniques. If not, expect him to break for big gains after contact as his mantra has been this season.
Utah is plus-2.0 in turnover margin, the best in the country. That is what has helped Utah stay perfect this season and made up for certain shortcomings on both sides of the ball.
As mentioned earlier, ASU struggled with ball security in the first portion of the season, and forcing takeaways hasn’t exactly been the signature trait for the Sun Devils’ defense (although the numbers are skewed from playing two triple-option teams).
All things considered, the Utes’ opportunistic nature on defense and Travis Wilson’s ability to make confident, safe decisions with the ball has been the formula of success for Utah. ASU will do everything it can to disrupt that rhythm and up the tempo in Salt Lake City.
An element to also keep in mind is, well, the elements. A 60 percent chance of rain is predicted at kickoff, and the Sun Devils notoriously have a hard time in unfavorable weather. As much as ASU played down that factor during practice, a wet football can make the slightest of differences in ball security, and in a game that may very well come down to who took better care of the ball, it is something to look out for.
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org