ASU putting emphasis on Utah, Pac-12 goals

TEMPE, Ariz. — As meaningful as both the blowout win over Illinois and heartbreaking loss to Missouri might have felt in the immediate aftermath, neither meant a whole lot to Arizona State coach Todd Graham.

“We put all that behind us — that’s the preseason,” Graham said. “Our guys know they start counting this week.”

With Utah coming to Tempe on Saturday for the first time in nearly 20 years, the Sun Devils (2-1) are digging their heels in for the Pac-12 portion of their schedule with a Rose Bowl in mind. That goal might be a long shot and the road to get there long, but this week’s matchup with the Utes presents a crucial starting point.

Too often in recent seasons, ASU has fumbled away opportunities to collect conference wins at home against lesser opponents. Utah is no slouch but offers a matchup the Sun Devils should win and probably must considering they have road games ahead against Cal, USC, Oregon State and Arizona.

ASU went to Salt Lake City last season, Utah’s first in the conference, and cruised to a 35-14 victory. That win means nothing to Graham, as he wasn’t even ASU’s coach then, but he has stressed to his players that the victory should also mean little to them heading into Saturday.

Having faced Utah does, however, give ASU a sense of the Utes’ personnel. Most notably, Utah is without junior quarterback Jordan Wynn, the team’s starter when the season began, who decided to retire after Week 2 due to his latest shoulder injury.

“I thought it did hurt them, because I really thought Jordan Wynn was very special,” Graham said. “But we are not going against an inexperienced quarterback or freshman quarterback. We have a guy who is very knowledgeable and has very good understanding of what they are doing offensively.”

Senior Jon Hays steps in for Wynn after having faced ASU last season in his collegiate debut. In that game, Hays passed for 199 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. Still, Hays has demonstrated himself a capable passer, one who might finally provide ASU’s secondary the test it has not yet faced.

Whether or not Hays took the first snap of the season, ASU’s defensive backs won’t get caught napping and are eager to be tested.

“He is a backup, but in our eyes he’s a starter — he played all last year,” junior safety Alden Darby said. “He’s not a backup to us. … That’s how we look at any quarterback.”

ASU has also circled running back John White as a player to gameplan against. The senior tallied the second most rushing yards (1,519) in the Pac-12 last season. He has 215 this season but missed last week’s Utah win due to an ankle injury. According to reports, White was limited in practice this week but is expected to play Saturday.

“We’ve got to play much better in the run game than we have been if we want to have a chance to win,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We haven’t run the football nearly effectively enough.”

And, of course, there is defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, a senior who more than lives up to his uncommon given name. Lotulelei is expected to be a first-round draft pick next year and leads an elite defensive line. That line, though, is just the start of Utah’s defense, which currently ranks 15th nationally in yards allowed at 268.67 per game.

“They’re going to come and try to win on defense,” Graham said. “Guess what? That’s what we’re doing, too. So it’s going to be an interesting battle.”

ASU’s defense currently ranks 24th nationally, having allowed 295.67 yards per game. If defensive superiority is to decide this game, then the burden is greater on ASU’s offense to get going fast. Against Missouri last week, the offense didn’t get into a rhythm until late in the third quarter.

While third-year sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly rallied the Sun Devils back in that game — nearly to a victory — he’d much prefer to build an early lead.

“We’ve got to come out fast with good intensity and get our run game going,” Kelly said. “As long as we do our job and everybody focuses on their part and we take care of the ball, we could score on every drive.”

Kelly wasn’t the only one talking about the need to establish a ground attack after Thursday’s practice at Sun Devil Stadium.

“We’ve got to get the run game going,” Graham said. “I really believe the team that can run the ball and takes care of the ball is going to win this game.”

Running back Cameron Marshall, who has seen limited action through three games, could get significant touches after Graham praised him this week and said he wants to get the senior more involved. Still, it won’t be easy establishing the run against Utah’s defensive front, no matter who gets the most carries.

The Sun Devils also will be looking to improve in two areas that have struggled thus far: special teams and ball security. Special-teams mistakes proved costly against Missouri, and Graham told his players this week that they won’t win any Pac-12 game in which they lose the special teams battle.

Ball security, meanwhile, has been an ongoing issue. ASU has turned the ball over seven times, including four times against Missouri.

Given those issues and Utah’s strengths, Graham recognizes that while ASU may be the favorite Saturday, nothing is guaranteed.

“We have Utah coming in here, one of the best-coached teams in the Pac-12,” Graham said, adding, “I hope our guys don’t think it’s going to be some sort of 48-14 deal, because it’s not.”