TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Arizona State bounced back from a disappointing loss with three wins. Utah also followed its lone setback by winning three straight games.
That leaves both teams in the thick of the Pac-12 South Division race, still in the College Football Playoff mix and with one big game coming up.
Yes, there will be a lot on the line when the 18th-ranked Utes meet the 15th-ranked Sun Devils on Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
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”I look at it as a single-elimination tournament,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. ”You cannot afford to lose, especially South Division games. You have to win to get to the championship.”
Utah (6-1, 3-1 Pac-12) has plenty to prove against the Sun Devils.
The Utes have lost 10 straight to ASU, by an average of more than three touchdowns, though most of the games came before Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
Arizona State won in blowouts in 2011 and 2012, then rallied from a 12-point deficit to beat the Utes 20-19 last season.
But this appears to be a different Utah team.
Since losing at home to Washington State on Sept. 27, the Utes have reeled off wins against UCLA, Oregon State and Southern California. Two of those games were on the road, a huge boost for a program that had lost eight of its previous nine conference road games.
The Utes are looking to add another big road win, while ending a long losing streak and, hopefully, move up from No. 17 in the CFP rankings.
”Every week you get to prove yourself,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. ”That’s the great thing about this sport. Every single week you get to prove yourself.”
Arizona State (6-1, 4-1) suffered an ugly 62-27 home loss to UCLA on Sept. 25, but has bounced back nicely. The Sun Devils beat UCLA, knocked off Stanford – their nemesis the past couple of seasons – and followed that with a solid road win over Washington last week.
That put Arizona State at No. 14 in the playoff rankings and in control of the Pac-12 South, a half-game ahead of Arizona and Utah, a game over USC.
”The winner of this one’s in the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 South,” Graham said.
Here’s a few more things to look for when the Sun Devils host the Utes:
KELLY’S RETURN: Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly returned against Washington last week after missing three games with an injured right foot. Showing a few signs of rust, he was unable to run Arizona State’s offense nearly as crisply as he had before the injury – wet weather may have contributed – and had 180 yards on 14-of-25 passing with two TDs and an interception. Kelly said this week that he needs to play better against Utah.
UTES QB: Travis Wilson’s uneven season has led Whittingham to rotate between him and Kendal Thompson. Wilson may have boosted his status in the eyes of his coach against USC last week. Though his numbers weren’t spectacular – 193 yards on 18-of-32 passing – he led the Utes on a game-winning drive, hitting Kaelin Clay on a 1-yard TD pass with 8 seconds left in the 24-21 win.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Arizona State has had its share of mishaps on special teams over the past few seasons. That could become an issue against Utah, which is one of the nation’s best teams in nearly all aspects of special teams. Clay has scored four TDs – three on punts, one on a kickoff – and is third nationally with a 22.5-yard average on punt returns. Utah also has one of the nation’s best punters, Tom Hackett, and is No. 1 nationally in net punting. Special teams could prove to be the difference in what may be another close game.
STOPPING FOSTER: Utah has a stout defense, ranking 19th nationally against the run at 112.1 yards allowed per game. The Utes will likely have their hands full trying to keep track of Arizona State RB D.J. Foster. Mostly a receiver early in his career, he’s one of the best dual-threat backs in the country, ranking 11th with 153.1 all-purpose yards per game.
DRES-LESS UTES: Utah suffered a big blow this week when Dres Anderson was lost for the season with a knee injury. The senior leads Utah with 355 yards receiving and four TDs, and is second with 22 catches. The Utes have a talented group of receivers behind him – Kenneth Scott leads them with 25 catches – but they will need to step up against Arizona State’s aggressive defense.