TEMPE, Ariz. — A month ago, as Arizona State went about pummeling Colorado in Tempe, Utah stunned the college football world with an upset of then-No. 5 Stanford in Salt Lake City.
With No. 22 ASU next up at Rice-Eccles Stadium, you can bet the Sun Devils will remember what the Utes did to the Cardinal’s national championship aspirations and do all they can to assure the same isn’t done to their Pac-12 South hopes.
“We’ve got something special on the horizon,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “We understand this team has already beaten one of the best team’s in this league. That can’t happen on our watch.”
ASU holds a one-game lead in the Pac-12 South and controls its own destiny. To maintain both, the Sun Devils need a win Saturday in the first of four decisive stretch-run games.
The matchup with Utah (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) provides ASU (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) its latest road test and perhaps the challenge it thought it would get last week in Pullman, Wash. With expectations of a rowdy atmosphere on Halloween night and challenging weather conditions, the Sun Devils wound up rolling over Washington State 55-21 in mild weather and a stadium only two-thirds full.
This week should be a different story. Utah has sold out each of its previous five home games this season, and its average attendance of 45,231 is greater than the actual capacity (45,017) of Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“I remember from a couple years ago when we played there they have great fans,” ASU tight end Chris Coyle said. “They’re going to be tough. I remember last time we played them there, they were just constantly loud.”
To prepare for that, ASU has spent a good deal of time this week working on silent cadences at the line of scrimmage and practicing with simulated crowd noise at its indoor practice facility.
What should really make this game a tougher test, though, is the level of competition.
“I told our players this: This is a very, very good team,” Graham said. “The competition is definitely a lot tougher this week. What I’ve seen from them is obviously how they play at home.”
The Utes don’t just have a great home atmosphere; they actually perform better there as well. In three road games this season, Utah is averaging 15.7 points. In its three Pac-12 home games, it’s averaging 34. Utah’s 1-2 record in those home games belies how it has performed.
In its Pac-12 opener, Utah took Oregon State to overtime and lost by three. In its next home game, Utah frustrated then-No. 12 UCLA all night before ultimately losing by a touchdown when a throw to the end zone was intercepted on the final play. Then came the upset of Stanford.
“I’ve been up to Utah, I know how good they play at home, I know what that crowd’s going to be like,” ASU safety Alden Darby said. “This is going to be a real good test.”
Despite Utah’s overall struggles, its offense has seen an uptick this season. Coach Kyle Whittingham tabbed Pac-12 veteran and former ASU head coach Dennis Erickson to invigorate the offense, and the results are clear. Under Erickson, who led the Sun Devils from 2007-11, the Utes offense is averaging 418.3 yards per game compared to 324.4 yards per game last season.
“They have made tremendous improvements offensively, just in what they do and how they do it,” Graham said. “They’re very difficult, much like every offense in this league is, to defend.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine Utah’s offense doing anything as impressive as ASU’s has lately. The Sun Devils have eclipsed 50 points and 500 total yards of offense in three straight games, moving up to sixth nationally in scoring and 10th in total offense. Quarterback Taylor Kelly has nine touchdown passes and five rushing touchdowns over the past three games.
All that could prove a bit too much for a Utah defense ranked ninth in the Pac-12 with 393.4 yards allowed per game, but the Utes do have one strength that could be a factor: rushing defense. Utah ranks fifth in the Pac-12 with 141.5 rushing yards allowed per game.
Graham has said that the common thread in ASU’s two losses was an inability to run the ball. If Utah can slow Kelly and Marion Grice, the offense might not be able to maintain its torrid pace.
ASU, meanwhile, should have an advantage on defense. The Sun Devils rank second in the Pac-12 with 343.4 yards allowed per game and should be able to force turnovers. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, who has been hampered by a hand injury but should be healthy this week, has 14 interceptions on the season, six of which came against UCLA.
“The only thing you see on film that has hurt them is turning the football over,” Graham said. “I talk about that every day. That’s the key.”
If ASU’s defensive front can get pressure and force Wilson into some mistakes, an opportunistic secondary is likely to capitalize. ASU is outscoring opponents 81-35 off of turnovers this season.
For whatever advantages it may have, ASU will perhaps more than anything need to replicate the mental maturity it displayed in Pullman last week. With a focused, businesslike approach, the Sun Devils got the job done quickly and efficiently.
The circumstances this week are certainly different, but ASU believes if it can approach Utah the same way it did Washington State, the result will be the same as well.
“We’re taking another step,” Darby said. “We saw the result of being focused and being mature in an away game, and we just want to double down on that.
“This is a team that’s trying to stop us from getting to the Rose Bowl. This is another road block, and we’ve got to be road warriors.”