Utah opens their second year of Pac-12 play the same way they did their first, on the road against a tough division foe. Utah (2-1) heads to Tempe to take on Arizona State (2-1) late Saturday night. Kickoff is set for 8:00 pm Mountain time. Non-conference play is over for both schools, and both want to start their 9-game conference schedule off with a win.
Arizona State is coming off a tough road loss to Missouri, dropping the contest 24-20 after twice failing to score points late in the game deep in Missouri territory. After looking explosive in their first two games at home, the Sun Devils struggled to move the ball on offense and showed some vulnerabilities on defense. Arizona State is looking to get back to their explosive ways at home. Arizona State relies on the big play on offense, having hit on 17 plays of 20 yards or more this season.
Utah won a wild, emotional game against BYU, stopping the Cougars on three consecutive game-ending plays to win 24-21. Utah finally won when BYU's second game-tying field goal attempt bounced harmlessly off the left upright. Utah's offense continues to struggle establishing consistency both on the ground and through the air, not a good sign going up against an aggressive Arizona State defense. Utah's defense has played great football and will need to be at the top of their game to give their sputtering offense a chance to gain confidence and play to their potential.
Arizona State Run Offense vs Utah Run Defense
Arizona State's offense is built around running the football. Through three games, the Sun Devils are running the ball nearly 63% of the time. When Arizona State runs the ball well, they can be very effective on offense; when they can't run effectively, the offense has a hard time moving the chains. Five players have 20 or more carries, and three players have 125 or more yards rushing. Marion Grice leads the team with 149 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Grice is a small, quick back with good speed and surprising power for a 200 pound back. D.J. Foster has 126 yards and two touchdowns as the third back. Foster is similar to Grice in running style, though perhaps with less power and more speed. Cameron Marshall has not had the season may expected and is struggling running the ball inside. Marshall is a power back who is best inside the tackles. Marshall has 81 yards on 25 carries, though he does have three rushing touchdowns. Quarterback Taylor Kelly leads the team with 26 rushing attempts and has picked up 128 yards. Kelly is a good runner at quarterback. He can run the option, though he does not always make the best reads and is quick to tuck and run on passing plays. Backup quarterback Michael Eubank has 68 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, and comes into the game to run the football. Eubank has not looked like the athlete he is reputed to be, appearing slow, hesitant, and tentative on the field. Arizona State wants to get the ball to the edges and their playmakers in space in the running game, and will do so running the option and with running plays designed to get well outside the tackles. A big reason why the Sun Devils want to get outside, and why Marshall and Eubank have struggled, is the interior offensive line. Left guard Jamil Douglas plays too high and often gets pushed into the backfield. Center Kody Koebensky has also had problems preventing penetration by opposing defenders.
Utah's defensive front is the strength of the defense, and they have had a great three games. Star Lotulelei continues to be the best defensive tackle in college football. Lotulelei is a disruptive force and has been regularly beating double-team blocking and blowing up plays inside. Lotulelei has 14 tackles and three sacks despite teams constantly running away from the standout nose guard. Dave Kruger is playing great football alongside Lotulelei and is requiring double-teams as well. Kruger made multiple plays in the run game against BYU and has been terrific as a senior. Viliseni Fauonuku is quietly making a name for himself as the top backup at tackle. Fauonuku has 2.5 tackles for loss in limited playing time and has been very disruptive, constantly winning one-on-one battles. Ends Joe Kruger and Nate Fakahafua are playing better each week against the run, and once again will be in the spotlight against a team that will force them to make plays. Dave Fagergren leads the team in tackles with 22, and has gotten better each week at keeping plays from getting outside. After struggling in the first half against Utah State defending the option, Utah's defense made changes to the option responsibilities of the defense, getting corners Moe Lee and Ryan Lacy involved. Since that time, the Utes have played much better against the outside running game, and held a very good BYU running attack to 2.5 yards per carry.
Utah Run Offense vs Arizona State Run Defense
To say Utah is not running the ball well would be an understatement. Utah is averaging just 2,7 yards per carry, and John White is the only ball carrier averaging better than 2.9 yards per attempt. White's status for Arizona State will not be known until game time, and Utah's offense desperately needs him. Without White against BYU, Utah could not run the ball, gaining just 49 yards on 35 carries. A large part of the blame falls on the offensive line, as the Utah front is having a difficult time creating running room. Utah's backs do not seem to trust the line and are too quick to take the first opening they see, hitting the hole and getting whatever they can. Jarrell Oliver led the Utes with 24 yards against BYU, but Oliver did not have a run longer than four yards. Lucky Radley added 22 yards on nine carries, and could see more playing time should White not play. Regardless of who takes the majority of the carriers, Utah's ball carriers need to slow down, show some patience, and let the line do their job. Utah backs missed several openings against BYU because they were too impatient. Utah's backs will be more patient this week and will have opportunities to be productive on the ground.
Arizona State has been good against the run, though opponents have been able to break through and pick up yards on the ground. Missouri was effective if not efficient on the ground, gaining 126 yards and all three touchdowns in the running game, though on 46 carries. Arizona State's front is fast, quick, and aggressive. They will do whatever they need to in the way of stunts and slants to disrupt blocking schemes and free defenders to get after the football. Will Sutton is the key to the defense. The undersized defensive tackle is very quick and excellent with his hands, allowing him to play great interior defense despite his size. Sutton has 22 tackles and five tackles for loss this season, staggering numbers for an interior lineman. Chris Young is a linebacker/safety hybrid who is excellent against the run. Young plays almost exclusively near the line of scrimmage and is always around the ball. Young has a knack for reading plays, beating blocks, and getting to the ball carrier. Young leads the team with six tackles for loss. Arizona State is third nationally with nearly 10 tackles for loss per game, and Utah has allowed 19 tackles for loss, including 11 against BYU. Linebacker Brandon Magee is an excellent all-around football player and one of the best linebackers in the conference. Magee missed most of the first two games with an injury and game back with vengeance against Missouri, recording 12 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and an interception.
Arizona State Pass Offense vs Utah Pass Defense
Kelly is a good, but not great, quarterback with some obvious flaws. Kelly does not have a strong arm and often under-throws even intermediate passes. Kelly is also inconsistent with his delivery on the run and under pressure, resulting in floating and off-target passes that have to this point in the season fallen incomplete instead of intercepted. Kelly did throw two interceptions against Missouri, and neither were very good throws. Kelly does not always work through his progressions and is much to willing to tuck the ball quickly and run when his first read is covered. Though Kelly is completing a high percentage of his passes (over 71%), that is by design as much as it is by ability. Arizona State has not been going deep and have had problems getting the wide receivers involved in the passing game. Sun Devil receivers have had a difficult time getting separation from defenses, and Jamal Miles is the only receiver with five or more catches averaging more than 10 yards per catch. Tight end Chris Coyle leads the team with 17 catches, 239 yards, and two touchdowns. Coyle is especially effective slipping off blocks and catching the ball in the flat off play-action passes. Running back D.J. Foster is second on the team with eight catches, 137 yards, and a touchdown. Foster is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and will beat a linebacker in pass coverage every time. Foster is also very good off play-action, sneaking out of the backfield and finding holes in the coverage. Arizona State's offensive line has allowed five sacks, though without Kelly's mobility it would be a lot more. Douglas is once again the major problem, as he sits way too high in pass protection and is often pushed quickly right back into the quarterback. Left tackle Evan Finkenberg has had problems with speed rushers, and center Koebensky can also be pushed around in the middle. The right side of the line with guard Andrew Sampson and tackle Brice Schwab has been solid.
Utah's pass defense has been very good through three games, giving up just 167 yards a game through the air. Utah's pass rush has been good, though not always finishing plays by getting the quarterback to the ground. Joe Kruger leads the team with 2.5 sacks and has been getting better each game. Kruger is developing into a great all-around pass rusher who can use a variety of moves to get free. Lotulelei and Fauonuku have been great collapsing the pocket from the inside, and each has a sack. Fakahafua had a great start to the season but has been quiet as a pass defender since recording a sack and two pass breakups in the season opener. Trevor Reilly has played more in coverage the past two games than as a pure pass rusher as he is also very good in coverage as a linebacker. Utah will use Reilly where they need him, and against a team with a good receiving tight end, Reilly could once again see a lot of time playing coverage instead of getting after the quarterback. Utah's secondary needs to take advantage of the mistakes opposing quarterbacks make, dropping far too many interceptions. The return of safety Brian Blechen should help in that department, as well as free Reilly up as a pass rusher as Blechen can cover the tight end in man coverage. Ryan Lacy recorded his first interception of the season against BYU and has been very good against the pass and run this season. Moe Lee has been very close to multiple interceptions and at some point has to make the play on the football. The key to the passing game will be how well Utah's linebackers and safeties play the tight end and running backs in coverage.
Utah Pass Offense vs Arizona State Pass Defense
Utah's passing game is stuck in neutral. Jon Hays is an adequate passer, though he is missing as many plays as he is making to this point in the season. Hays played reasonably well against BYU, completing 66% of his passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns, though Hays missed several opportunities for big plays that would have blown the game open. Hays needs to start hitting the chances he is given, in order to open up the running game by taking an extra defender out of the box to defend the deep pass. Hays had not been helped much by his receivers, as they have dropped some catchable passes. Utah needs a receiver to step up and make plays. Dres Anderson leads the team with 111 receiving yards, but he has dropped a couple of passes that would have resulted in big gains and touchdowns. Kenneth Scott disappeared after catching three passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns against Utah State. DeVonte Christopher has been a non-factor this season, and appears more interested in attempting to draw pass interference calls than catching the football. Christopher has 83 yards on nine catches this season, though he has not played a good game in 2012. Jake Murphy had a terrific season opener, catching six passes for 78 yards and two touchdowns, though he has two catches for eight yards since. Utah needs someone to step up and be "the man" in the passing game, someone opponents have to account for. Right now teams can play basic coverages and get after the quarterback because no receiver has shown the ability to make plays on a weekly basis. Part of the problems in the passing game is again poor offensive line play. Utah has allowed seven sacks in the last two games, three by Utah State and four by BYU.
The strength of Arizona State's excellent pass defense is a ferocious pass rush. The Sun Devils are 12th nationally with 10 sacks in three games, and they have had multiple sacks in all three games. Sutton once again is the key piece of the puzzle. Sutton is an excellent pass rusher, possessing a devastating swim move that in nearly impossible for a single lineman to stop. Sutton already has three sacks in three games, getting exactly one sack in each game - a great number for a defensive tackle in a season. Defensive end Carl Bradford is right behind Sutton with 2.5 sacks, though those came entirely against Illinois. Bradford has an explosive first step and is difficult to block when he gets that step on the tackle. Sutton and Bradford draw a lot of attention, which frees up other pass rushers to make plays, as seven Sun Devils have recorded sacks. The pressure Arizona State puts on quarterbacks has resulted is a lot of bad decisions and poor passes. Arizona State leads the nation with seven interceptions, which they have returned for 170 yards and one touchdown. Three Sun Devils have two interceptions a piece, including linebackers Magee and Carlos Mendoza. Safety Alden Darby is an instinctive player who is given a lot of freedom on defense. Darby will play a lot of "robber" coverages, where he sinks into the intermediate middle of the field and plays off the quarterback. Darby's two interceptions have come off of his freelancing style of play combined with the pressure of the defensive front. When opponents have had time to throw the football, they have found open receivers and hit on big plays. Young is questionable in coverage, and the corners can be beat deep in man coverage. Utah needs to play a lot of max protection, keeping a back and/or tight end in to help with the pass rush and hope their receivers can make plays.
Outside of punter Josh Hubner, Arizona State's special teams have not been good. Hubner is averaging nearly 47 yards per punt, and has had four punts of 50 or more yards. Alex Garoutte is inconsistent as a placekicker, and has not had many chances this season, hitting his only field goal attempt, a short 33-yard try. Garoutte made just 15 of his 22 attempts last season. Jamal Miles has struggled as a return man, averaging 22 yards per kick return and nine yards per punt return. Arizona State's coverage teams are not good, especially on punt returns. The Sun Devils have allowed 90 punt return yards on just four returns. The punt coverage unit does not get down field quickly and they have a tendency to leave their coverage lanes. Bad snaps on punts and placekicks have also been an issue.
Utah's special teams are not much better. Sean Sellwood had a rare bad game against BYU, though he did have to deal with some poor snaps. Sellwood over-swung on one punt deep in Utah territory, hitting a 23-yard shank that set up BYU's first touchdown. Sellwood did make a heads-up play on a bad snap, pulling the ball down and eating it rather than surrendering a blocked kick. Utah's punt coverage was bad against Utah State but was good against BYU. It is hard to fault the punt coverage for BYU's 34-yard punt return when the return was sprung by two egregious blocks in the back that went uncalled. Coleman Petersen has been better after a horrible season opener, though he was inconsistent against BYU, hitting a 48-yard field goal but having a 37-yard attempt blocked because of a low trajectory on his kick. Utah's kick returners are not getting the job done, averaging just 17 yards per return. Charles Henderson is a threat as a punt returner, and he had 85 yards on four returns against BYU. Henderson could have a big game against a poor Arizona State coverage unit.
This is a difficult game to get a read on and could go either way. Arizona State looked great at home against two bad teams and looked very average on the road against a mediocre Missouri team. Utah's offense will move the ball at times, and will run the ball batter than they did against BYU. How the Utah line handles the Arizona State pass rush will be key, and the Sun Devils will likely get three sacks. If Arizona State can run the ball effectively on offense, they could win easily. I don't see the Sun Devils having the needed success in the run game, and Kelly will turn the ball over. Utah wins the field position battle and pulls out a close game thanks to defense and a big punt return or two by Henderson.