ASU hosts Utah with chance to shake up the Pac-12

The Sun Devils look to upset the No.16 Utes as they come to town this Saturday

Sun Devil football has returned from the City of Angels a renewed team, reinvigorated after a thrilling come-from-behind victory over USC. 

Their 38-35 triumph over the Trojans capped off possibly the Sun Devils' most complete performance of the season and improves ASU to 4-4 on the year. 

A Pac-12 championship and bowl game appearance are still in reach, and with the No. 16 Utah Utes traveling to Tempe this week, there is no greater time than the present for ASU to assert itself as a legit contender.   

“If I have to get this team hooped and hollered to play this football game, then we don’t deserve to win it,” said redshirt senior quarterback Manny Wilkins. “But I don’t need to do that, because our team knows this importance of it.” 

Wilkins is coming off likely the defining play of his senior season, a 45-yard touchdown run that clinched the game against USC. 

The ramifications of Wilkins's impending graduation from ASU loom large in the quarterback’s mind and frames his perspective on the season. For a quarterback who lacks even a bowl victory on his resume, much of his legacy and NFL potential will be determined by his finish of this season.

No game remaining on ASU’s schedule could mean more for their championship aspirations than their upcoming matchup with the Utes. Utah, currently boasting a 6-2 record, leads the Pac-12 South with only four games remaining. 

A win on Saturday not only furthers the Sun Devils' chances of claiming the Pac-12 South, it almost guarantees bowl eligibility. Defeating Utah would give ASU five wins, only needing one in their final three to ensure they are bowl-bound. 

While expectations might be slightly higher than six wins and a bowl appearance, there are worse rookie seasons for a first-year head coach. 

“They’re on a roll right now,” said head coach Herm Edwards when speaking about Utah. “They’re a confident football team. They’ve beaten some very good football teams — some impressive wins from these guys. This is a game where we’re going to have to be our best in all three phases, and I think the guys understand that.”

Utah is defined by their physicality on both sides of the ball, a staple of the Kyle Whittingham era in Salt Lake City. Their offense heavily features junior running back Zack Moss, whose propensity to seek out contact is well known around the conference. 

“Their running back, he tries to kill you when he lines you up,” said defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales. “Our guys won’t miss tackles or get juked because he tries to find you.”

Utah’s physicality extends to their defense, where they emphasize stopping the run and rushing the passer. The Utes currently have the third least rushing yards per game behind previous ASU opponents, Michigan State and San Diego State. 

Thus the onus lies on Wilkins and the Sun Devils' impressive group of receivers, highlighted by human highlight reel N’Keal Harry, to ignite the ASU offense through the air. 

Utah employs an aggressive coverage style where they almost exclusively play man-to-man with little safety help. 

They essentially leave their corners on islands against wide receivers and dare offenses to beat it. The ability of Utah’s secondary to contain the likes of Harry, redshirt sophomore Frank Darby and junior Kyle Williams will play a major factor in the final outcome of this game. 

“When I get lined up and see a corner pressed up on me I’m like 'He is disrespecting us. This is disrespectful. Don’t press us,'” Darby said. “We already know how to handle the press. They press on the field side, which is a bad thing to do. Don’t press on the field side when you got me and N’Keal on the same side.”

ASU and Utah should look very similar to some of the Sun Devils' early season matchups, most notably against the Spartans and Aztecs. 

In a game likely dominated by the run game, defense and time of possession, every play and every matchup matters. When one missed assignment can determine the fate of an entire season, there’s no room for error. 

“We understand the importance of the game, and how pivotal a situation we are in,” Wilkins said. “We just have to come out, and everybody has to do their job. If everybody wins their one on one matchup every single play, we’ll come out victorious.” 


Reach the reporter at Jrosenfa@asu.edu or follow @jacobrosenfarb on Twitter. 

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