ASU faces another Pac-12 hurdle in upstart Utah
TEMPE, Ariz. — As unlikely as it might have seemed before the season began, Arizona State enters the stretch run as the top contender for the Pac-12 South with four conference games left. This week presents a significant hurdle.
Hosting No. 17 Utah, the Sun Devils have a chance to take another big step toward repeating as division champions and remain in control of a tight race atop the South.
"We’re cresting the mountain," coach Todd Graham said. "You can see it now, but like everybody says: You’ve got to take the next one. Don’t underestimate the other team."
The Utes (6-1, 3-1 Pac-12) certainly were underestimated entering the season. In the Pac-12 preseason media poll, Utah was picked to finish fifth, the same place it had the previous two seasons. That seemed reasonable. But Utah has shown it moved past the growing pains that came with its transition to the Pac-12.
Now, Utah looks like a true contender, and is winning the close games it couldn’t last season. That included a 20-19 loss to ASU in Salt Lake City last November, a game that could have spoiled ASU’s pursuit of a division title. The Utes this week have another shot to derail the surging Sun Devils (6-1, 4-1), who have won three straight.
"This team is hungry that we’re playing against," Graham said. "We’ve got to be more hungry than them."
Utah has won its past three games by the skin of its teeth. Against UCLA, it won on a field goal with 34 seconds left. It then beat Oregon State on a touchdown in double overtime. And last week against USC, the Utes won on a somewhat-controversial touchdown with eight seconds left.
Could this week’s contest at Sun Devil Stadium be another nail-biter?
"It’s going to come down to the wire every week," Graham said. "You’re going to play so many plays, and it’s going to come down to the last series or two. You’ve just got to battle. There’s certain things you can’t fix this time of year, and we don’t have those issues."
The Sun Devils do, however, have a few things to clean up this week, starting with the offense. In a 24-10 win over Washington last week, the offense accounted for just 17 points, its lowest total in three seasons under Graham. Heavy wind and rain played a role in that, but so did quarterback Taylor Kelly.
Kelly returned from a six-week absence to lead the offense, and the senior showed some rust, completing just 14 of 25 passes, throwing an interception that went for a touchdown and taking seven sacks.
"My timing was a little off," Kelly admitted this week. "I’ve got to get rid of it quicker, and that’s one of the things I’ve been working on this week."
Added Graham on Thursday: "When you don’t play something for six weeks it takes you a little bit to get going. Also it takes the other guys around you to adapt a little bit. So we’ve just got to get our execution back hitting on all cylinders."
Utah may not be the ideal opponent against which to get an offense back on track. The physical Ute defense currently leads the nation with five sacks per game, an incredible number considering no team in the past nine seasons has averaged more than 4.17. Utah is also allowing just 112.1 rushing yards per game.
Led by senior Nate Orchard, who ranks second nationally with 11 sacks this season, Utah’s defensive front will test an offensive line depleted by left guard Christian Westerman’s leg injury. Sophomore Stephon McCray will start in his place Saturday.
"We’re expecting them to come out and give us their best shot," senior left tackle Jamil Douglas said. "They’re a good front, they’ve got a good group of playmakers and they play hard."
ASU’s defense, meanwhile, will be challenged by junior running back Devontae Booker, who was emerged as one of the Pac-12’s best running backs over the past four games, averaging 166.3 yards per game in those contests.
ASU’s defensive efforts against the run have left something to be desired, giving up 180.4 yards per game (11th in the Pac-12).
"I don’t think we’ve faced anyone like him," ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said of Booker. "He’s the hardest-running running back that I’ve seen to this point. He understands getting the ball going north and south and puts a lot of pressure on defenses."
Though it wouldn’t have been circled on the schedule two months ago, this is ASU’s biggest game yet, one that will set the Sun Devils’ course over the final four weeks of the regular season. Win and ASU stays in control of the South before meeting Notre Dame in a marquee non-conference game next week.
"You want to be in the driver’s seat of your own destiny," Kelly said. "You don’t want to rely on other people to lose or to win. We’ve got that opportunity, and we’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity that we have."
But lose and the Sun Devils put themselves in a tough spot, chasing in a super-competitive division race. Accordingly, ASU is treating every week like an elimination game, and coaches have not undersold that message this week.
"It’s a championship game," Douglas said. "We’re a couple teams at the top of the Pac-12 South right now, so each game is key, especially within the division. They’ve been preaching about ‘championship week’ so that’s been the motive going into this game."