In a college football world where a team is only as good as its last win, Utah’s victory over Stanford seems like it was two seasons ago rather than last month. Since the October 12 shocking upset, Utah has looked listless and banged up, losing against an average Arizona team 35-24 and failing to score a touchdown for the first time since 2010 in an ugly 19-3 loss at USC. The Utes are up against another tough test this week, taking on Arizona State at Rice Eccles, a team that has scored at least 50 points in each of the last three weeks. Will Utah be able to recapture the magic and ability they showed against Stanford? Or will ASU extend its Pac-12 winning streak to four straight games? Here’s a position-by-position look at this week’s matchup and which team will have the edge heading into Saturday’s game:
Travis Wilson’s hand is clearly bothering him more than he is letting on and has been a huge factor in his ineffectiveness over the last few weeks. Since the Stanford game, Wilson has completed only 8-of-23 pass attempts for 66 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. Turnovers continue to plague the sophomore as he has thrown multiple interceptions in all of the Utes’ Pac-12 contests this year for a total of 14. The bye week should have allowed Wilson’s hand to heal and he should be better off this week, but if he’s not 100 percent, the Utes will struggle to keep up with ASU’s high octane offense.
Taylor Kelly has had his fair share of struggles this season, tossing four interceptions in ASU’s two losses this season, but the junior is rolling after a monster performance at Washington State. Kelly shredded Washington State’s secondary for 275 yards and five touchdowns through the air. He’s also a threat in the rushing game, scoring two more touchdowns against the Cougars on Halloween and five total rushing touchdowns over the last three weeks. Kelly has 2,511 passing yards, 28 total touchdowns and eight interceptions this season.
Utah’s success against Stanford was predicated on a strong running game, but that production has evaporated over the last two weeks. In losses at Arizona and USC, no Utah running back has rushed for more than 65 yards and only Kelvin York has scored (once, against Arizona). Bubba Poole leads the team with 495 yards rushing and the team has three viable rushers between Poole, Lucky Radley and Kelvin York, but Wilson has as many rushing touchdowns (5) as those three do combined. Utah will need to get the running game going to keep the ball out of Kelly’s hands.
ASU running back Marion Grice is largely ignored from a national standpoint, but the senior is a scoring machine and the focal point of the Sun Devil offense. Grice has scored multiple touchdowns in six of ASU’s eight games and leads college football in scoring with a mindboggling 18 total touchdowns. Kelly shouldered the offensive load against Washington State, but over the last three weeks, Grice has 454 total yards and five touchdowns.
Dres Anderson, who looked so dynamic in the first few weeks of the season, has been limited severely the last two weeks because of Wilson’s injury. Against USC and Arizona, Anderson had only four receptions for 50 yards. In the mean time, guys like Sean Fitzgerald and Anthony Denham stepped up for a combined 124 yards and a touchdown, but the Utes will need more out of their receivers to keep up with the Sun Devils.
The Sun Devils have a litany of options in the passing game and use running backs, tight end Chris Coyle and wide receivers to exploit match ups all over the field. Jaelen Strong is the guy to watch for ASU. The juco transfer has become one of Kelly’s favorite targets, catching 49 passes for 720 yards and five touchdowns. Sophomore runningback DJ Foster has evolved into more of a passing threat this year and is second on the team with 467 yards receiving and three touchdowns. Grice is prolific out of the backfield and Kelly also favors tight end Chris Coyle often in the passing game.
Utah’s struggles have also been amplified by increased pressure given up by the offensive line. The left side has been particularly troublesome and Utah has surrendered nine sacks in the last two weeks, six to USC. The increase can be attributed to Adam Schulz playing in the more mobile Wilson’s place, but that’s still an alarming number. The Utes rank fifth in the Pac-12 for sacks surrendered with 17.
Arizona State’s offensive line has been average at best this season, allowing too much pressure on Kelly in games against tougher opponents. Kelly was sacked six times against Notre Dame, three times against Stanford and three times against Wisconsin earlier in the season. Over the last three weeks, ASU has surrendered six sacks. The Sun Devils rank eighth in the Pac-12 with 19 sacks given up, a statistic the Utes will have to exploit if they hope to beat ASU.
Utah continues to keep pace with the best teams in the conference in regard to quarterback pressure and sacks, something the Utes will need a lot of on Saturday. The Utes are tied for second in the conference with 27 total sacks and have seven sacks over the last two weeks. Trevor Reilly continues to put up Pac-12 defensive player of the year numbers with 69 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. The Utes have also taken up residence in the opposing team’s backfield with 53 tackles for loss.
Arizona State ranks sixth in the conference with only 20 sacks, but the Sun Devils have the talent to harrass opposing quarterbacks relentlessly every week. Reigning Pac-12 defensive player of the year Will Sutton has slowed a bit this season after gaining weight to become more of a nose tackle, but the junior still has two sacks this season, 24 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. Linebacker Carl Bradford is the player to watch. Bradford has 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks this season.
Utah has held up well over the last two weeks against USC and Arizona, surrendering only two touchdowns and a combined 298 yards. The real issue is the Utes’ trouble with generating turnovers in the passing game. Utah ranks dead last in the Pac-12 with only two interceptions all season, a stat that as been an issue since the season opener. Utah ranks ninth in the Pac-12 with an average of 252 yards per game given up.
ASU ranks near the middle of the Pac-12 in most pass defense categories. The Sun Devils are sixth in the conference with 11 interceptions and are third in the conference for yards surrendered with 217 yards per game. Corner Osahon Irabor and safety Robert Nelson have been solid in the defensive backfield for ASU and is a player to watch in this game.
Prediction: It’s hard to imagine with Wilson’s questionable hand injury and the recent struggles of the Utah offense that the Utes can keep up with ASU. The Sun Devils are too prolific offensively and will press Utah to keep up, creating the potential for more forced throws from Wilson and the potential for more turnovers. Grice will score at least twice and the Sun Devils will run away with a 37-21 victory.