September 15, 2012; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Utes wide receiver Charles Henderson (85) returns a punt to set up Utah's first touchdown during the first quarter against the Brigham Young Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE
Arizona State gets their Pac-12 season started Saturday at 7:00 p.m. PT when the Utah Utes (2-1) come into Sun Devil Stadium.
So who thought entering conference play that the Arizona State Sun Devils (2-1) would have a legitimate chance at the Pac-12 South crown?
Certainly not this guy.
But with Stanford's shocking upset over USC last weekend and everyone's favorite sleeper, the Utah Utes, playing well below expectations, this division is officially wide open. Sure, UCLA and Arizona have been quite impressive in their own right but head coach Todd Graham and his Devils are one Taylor Kelly overthrow from beating Mizzou and most likely jumping in the national rankings.
And for those of you who are still upset over that 24-20 loss to the Tigers last week, get over it already. The entire Arizona State roster showed some serious resiliency in making something out of nothing and Kelly showed exactly why Graham chose him as the starter, almost single-handedly willing his team to an incredible comeback victory on the road.
If you're going to point the finger at anyone, point it at Graham and his coaching staff. Their decision-making throughout the contest, most notably switching Kelly out for Michael Eubank at the goal line late in the fourth, is the reason this team isn't currently sitting at 3-0.
But the biggest reason I say not to cry over spilled milk? The game had no conference implications. So let's just chalk it up to a learning lesson and move on to this preview already:
For the fourth consecutive week, Arizona State will have the good fortune of facing a backup quarterback. With the Utes losing Jordan Wynn to a shoulder injury during the Utah State game, senior Jon Hays has now been thrust into action. And so far, he's responded better than anyone could have expected, nearly leading the Utes to the comeback over Utah State before knocking off No. 25 BYU in the Holy War the following week.
But ASU's carryovers from last year's defense are still very aware that Hays isn't any sort of special talent after they picked him off three times on the road. Overall, Hays is a solid game-manager who handles the pass rush well and takes what the defense gives him.
Who the Devils should really be worrying about is running back John White IV. White missed last week's game against BYU and has started slow in 2012 but the senior ball-carrier ran for 1,518 yards and 15 touchdowns in his 2011 coming-out party. He's expected to play in this one and as a well-rounded workhorse, the Devils will have their hands full.
Through the first three games of the season, the Utes' offensive line hasn't been too impressive. After losing two All-Pac-12 linemen, this unit has looked beatable, allowing Hays to get sacked four times last week while not opening many holes for the run game against BYU's front seven (1.4 yards per carry). Will Sutton and company had a valiant performance against Mizzou's rushing attack last week, holding a ground game that was averaging 181.5 rushing yards coming in to just 126 on the ground. Don't be surprised if they overwhelm the Utes' line in this one.
Utah does have an underrated bunch of wide receivers to play but they're underrated for a reason: they don't get many opportunities to shine. Senior DeVonte Christopher is a burner however they've been using him more as a possession-type this season as he leads the team in receptions with nine for 83 yards. Dres Anderson is another vertical threat but Hays likes to lean more on his big tight end Jake Murphy. If the Devils can swallow Murphy in the middle of the field, ASU could be in for a sack-happy Saturday with Hays waiting on deep routes behind an inconsistent o-line.
Anchored by future top-ten NFL draft pick Star Lotulelei, the Utes field the 15th best defense in the nation in terms of total yardage allowed. Lotulelei, a 6'4", 320-pound defensive tackle, is an absolute force in every meaning of the word, requiring double teams on nearly every snap while lifting the play of every athlete around him. Lotulelei tied his career-high with seven tackles last week and I wouldn't be surprised if he matches that number this week with ASU looking to pound the ball.
Surrounding Lotulelei are ends Joe Kruger and Nate Fakahafua. Kruger leads the team with 3.5 sacks and Fakahafua has also shown the ability to take advantage of the one-on-one situations that Lotulelei creates. Kruger's brother, Dave, is another returning starter at the DT position who provides a steady presence despite his undersized frame. The Utes also have Thretton Palamo who has evolved from one of the world's finest rugby players to become a scrappy pass-rusher who loves to use his leverage.
As for Utah's linebackers, let's just say they'd look a lot worse if it wasn't for the elite line in front of them. Instead, they manage to get the job done with all the lanes Lotulelei and friends open up despite the occasional mental lapse. Trevor Reilly plays a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role with his long arms and quick feet allowing him to make a lot of big plays in the opponent's backfield. Beyond Reilly, redshirt freshman LT Filiaga has shown some impressive range at the other outside spot while Dave Fagergren and V.J. Fehoko are both capable options in the middle.
This is an athletic group that showcases above-average sideline to sideline speed but they can be thrown off by misdirection plays. If offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is more creative than last week, he shouldn't have a particularly difficult time outsmarted these linebackers for a few big plays.
The secondary, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. SS Brian Blechen is expected to return this week from his suspension and he'll provide some much needed versatility behind the a rock-solid front seven. Blechen likes to play closer to the line with eight tackles for loss, two sacks and three forced fumbles in 2011. But for looking like a linebacker, Blechen also provides some deceiving coverage skills with seven interceptions in his first two seasons.
FS Eric Rowe will also finally be healthy for this one and he has the makings of a future star with his NFL-quality athleticism. Additionally, the Utes have senior cornerbacks Ryan Lacy and Mo Lee, both of whom provide solid smarts and size. There's still some questions at the nickel position so someone like WR Jamal Miles might be able to do some damage out of the slot but this is a group that won't get beat too often.
X-Factor: Devilbacker Carl Bradford- Let's just say I wouldn't be suprised if Carl Bradford has doubled his 2012 sack count (2.5) before this one is over. I expect Graham and his coaching staff to try to use Bradford's speed of the end to take advantage of Utah's bulky tackles throughout this one. Bradford will also occasionally be asked to cover Hays favorite target, TE Jake Murphy. He'll be making plays all over the field in this one and if he can keep Hays uncomfortable, he'll make some bad decisions just like in last year's matchup.
Final Prediction: Utah 20, Arizona State 31: Before the season began, I saw this game being when the wheels began to fall off after the Devils started 3-0. But with ASU already getting their letdown out of the way last week and Utah coming off a huge emotional win, I think this could be a bit of a one sided affair. John White will get his but Jon Hays is going to be asked to do too much and not step up to the challenge. I'm seeing at least five sacks on the day with at least three turnovers to go along with it. There aren't going to be many big plays to be found for Arizona State's running backs but I see D.J. Foster and Kelly building off their strong performances last week and making some plays in space. This offense will improvise and improvise successfully.
To join the conversation about ASU, head on over to House of Sparky.