Utah played in one of the last Fiesta Bowls staged at Sun Devil Stadium, a recently remodeled venue that also hosted Super Bowl XXX.
Tracing the Utes' turnaround this season, cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah started counting and arrived at “Super Bowl Five.” Utah claimed to have gone 4-0 in October’s Super Bowls, a standard of performance made necessary by September losses to Washington and Washington State.
Wait. Super Bowls? That’s how Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his players have framed a recovery that could land them in the Rose Bowl — if they keep performing at their October level in November, starting Saturday afternoon vs. Arizona State in Tempe, Ariz.
Let's review that sentence: Utah … Rose Bowl … November. Yeah, what could go wrong?
November failures get most of the blame for the Utes' inability to win a Pac-12 South championship, but here’s another opportunity for them.
Considering the Utes took a .444 winning percentage in Pac-12 play into this season, they haven’t fared any worse (13-15) in November than in any other month in their previous seven seasons of conference membership. Late-season losses are more memorable than most defeats, though, and the Utes have absorbed their share of them. This week’s College Football Playoff rankings were a reminder that they’ve been been in prime position for big things in past Novembers, only to lose key games to ASU in 2014, Arizona in ’15 and Oregon in ’16.
Asked if he detected a pattern of those losses, Whittingham said, “No theories.”
Will this season end differently? The Utes have a couple of factors in their favor. Even mixing in September's struggles, this is the best offense they've fielded in the Pac-12 era. And with the disclaimer of facing some injury-depleted, downtrodden opponents, they've played at a division-championship level for four weeks. So why couldn't Utah keep doing that?
The formula “starts with [Whittingham], that you never let anybody believe you've arrived,” Shah said. “Coach says we're playing Super Bowl after Super Bowl. This is Super Bowl Five. God willing, it'll be Super Bowl Six.”
With Colorado having lost to Arizona on Friday, the Utes would clinch the South title by beating Arizona State and then defeating Oregon at home next week. If they lose to the Sun Devils, though? That’s another story. ASU would be even with Utah in the loss column and own the tiebreaker, so the Utes would need help from UCLA, Oregon or Arizona.
Without being aware of Utah's history, ASU coach Herm Edwards pointed to the inevitability of a flat performance at some point. In his first season as a college head coach, Edwards said, “The big part I'm noticing is the emotion of the football games. Every week, there's always a couple games that you scratch your head and go, 'How did that happen?' I just think it has a lot to do with the emotions of the football team.”
In that context, a Utah loss in Tempe would not be inexplicable. The Sun Devils have been in all eight games this season; each of their four defeats came by seven points. They're good enough to make Utah play 60 minutes, at a minimum. To have any chance of winning comfortably, the Utes will have to avoid giving up big plays in the passing game. They surrendered some of those against Stanford and USC, although not enough to harm them.
Assuming the defensive line and linebackers can shut down ASU running back Eno Benjamin, who’s approaching 1,000 yards for the season, the focus shifts to Utah’s secondary vs. quarterback Manny Wilkins and receivers N’Keal Harry and Frank Darby. Ute safety Marquise Blair must sit out the first half, due to a targeting penalty last week vs. UCLA.
Harry “is going to make big plays,” Shah said. “You just hope they’re not back-breaking plays, game-changing plays.”
In other words, the kind of plays that Utah’s offense has failed to make in past Novembers.
NO. 16 UTAH AT ARIZONA STATE
At Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
Kickoff: 2 p.m. MDT.
TV: Pac-12 Networks.
Radio: 700 AM.
Records: Utah 6-2 (4-2 Pac-12), ASU 4-4 (2-3 Pac-12).
Series history: ASU leads, 21-8.
Last meeting: ASU 30, Utah 10 (2017).
About the Utes: Matt Gay, the reigning Lou Groza Award winner, has made his last 10 field goal attempts. … Utah has won once in Tempe in the Pac-12 era, a 49-26 victory in 2016. … This is Utah’s first game this season that will end in daylight. … Freshman WR Solomon Enis and reserve RB TJ Green are Phoenix products.
About the Sun Devils: Dave Christensen, ASU’s offensive line coach, was Utah’s offensive coordinator in 2014, when the Utes lost 19-16 at ASU in overtime. … BYU alumnus Shaun Nua coaches ASU’s defensive line. … The Sun Devils rank between fourth and eighth in the Pac-12 in all major statistical categories, except pass efficiency defense (11th).