No. 13 Utah faces blitzing test against Arizona State
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Utah has put itself on a collision course with Colorado later this month for a possible shot at the Pac-12 South title. The Utes are a game behind the 16th-ranked Buffaloes, so all they need to do is beat two teams with losing conference records to give themselves a shot.
The first one, Thursday night in the desert, won't be easy.
Arizona State has won just two of its four Pac-12 games, but the Sun Devils will be a tough out with all the pressure they will put on the No. 13 Utes defensively.
''They're by far the most heavily blitzed team we've faced all year,'' Utah quarterback Troy Williams said. ''Arizona State really bases their defense upon trying to pressure the quarterback. This will be a good challenge for us.''
Arizona State (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) does have one of the conference's most aggressive defenses, sending blitzes in from everywhere.
But survive the blitz and opposing teams have found the Sun Devils vulnerable to big plays.
Despite dialing back the blitzes a bit this season, Arizona State is last nationally against the pass for the second straight season, allowing 397.6 yards per game. The Sun Devils have been plagued by injuries, but also poor tackling and missed assignments, leading to 12 scoring plays of 50 yards or longer.
''We have to get better at what we're doing,'' Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. ''There's times when we have played very, very well. We've had too many critical errors, that's the biggest thing.''
The Utes (7-2, 4-2) have not played since losing to No. 4 Washington on Oct. 29, allowing players to get rested and heal up as they attempt to win in Tempe for the first time since 1976.
Utah has numerous players who could return from injuries, including center Lo Falemaka, safety Marcus Williams and receiver Cory Butler-Byrd
''We got some guys rested and some players some down time,'' Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. ''Injury-wise, hopefully we get a few guys back.''
A few more things to look for when Utah plays at Arizona State on Thursday night:
WILKINS' RETURN?: Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins has worked with the first-team offense this week and is expected to return from shoulder and ankle injuries that have plagued him for a month. The sophomore adds a dynamic dimension to the Sun Devils' offense, not just with his passing and knowledge of the offense, but his running ability. Arizona State has been a much better team when Wilkins has been healthy enough to run and his return will be a huge boost.
UNCERTAIN PREPARATION: Arizona State's string of injuries, including Wilkins, has made it tough for the Utes to prepare. The Sun Devils were missing 10 starters in their loss to Oregon last week and have played three different quarterbacks this season. Arizona State could get several players back this week, including running back Demario Richard, cornerback Kadeem Orr and safety Armand Perry. ''Coach has told us time and time again, we don't know who's going to be playing, which quarterback's going to start, which back's going to start,'' Utah defensive tackle Pasoni Tasini said. ''We're going to get a lot of different looks. We don't know … wait until game day and see what they come out with.''
STOPPING WILLIAMS: Utah running back Joe Williams has gone from retired to almost unstoppable. The senior retired from football on Sept. 13, but came back to the Utes after injuries devastated their running back corps. Williams has rushed for at least 170 yards the past three games, including a 172-yard performance against one of the nation's top defensive teams, Washington. Stopping him will be priority No. 1 for Arizona State's defense.