ASU football hosts No. 15 Utah with chance to clinch bowl eligibility

An upset of the ranked Utes would send the Sun Devils to their sixth consecutive postseason game

Who: Arizona State versus No. 15 Utah

Where: Sun Devil Stadium

When: 7:30 p.m. on FS1

Series: ASU leads 20-7 all-time

Last meeting: Utes won 34-18 Oct. 17, 2015 in Salt Lake City

There’s always a little something extra on the line when ASU football hosts “Salute to Service” games.

Thursday, when No. 15 Utah comes to Tempe, the Sun Devil Stadium atmosphere may not equal the energy of the 2014 Military Appreciation game, when the Sun Devils (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) topped Notre Dame 55-31. It may not even equal last year’s Salute to Service game, a 61-55 triple overtime shootout with Oregon, which also took place on a Thursday and featured a tribute to Pat Tillman.

But rest assured, the Utes (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12) have plenty to play for, including the Pac-12 South title and a possible Rose Bowl berth, while ASU is hoping to avoid missing a bowl game for the first time under head coach Todd Graham.

“I am very grateful to coach at the school that Pat Tillman played at,” Graham said. “And other veterans who attended Arizona State because they put their lives on the line so that we could be free. At the end of our practices we make a point to count our blessings and take a moment to realize how blessed we are to get to do what we do because somebody else paid the price. So few have paid the price for so many.”

This motivation give ASU the edge in a close game. In two of the last three contests, the games were decided by three points or less, and in two of those games, the winner scored 23 points or less. 

The similarities of the two teams and the ways in which they have been built into contenders has helped foster a divisional rivalry. 

After decades of ASU dominance of the Utes, including an 11-game win streak that was finally snapped last year along with ASU’s reign atop the Pac-12 South, it appears it is Utah’s turn to battle it out with neighbor Colorado for the top spot. Graham has been very complimentary in the past of both Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham and Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre.

“I have tremendous respect for Kyle Whittingham as a head coach,” Graham said. "Our players have a lot of mutual relationships. We have a lot of respect for the discipline that team has. When you play them, you better bring it because it is going to be tough. It will be a whole lot of blocking and tackling and you better win that. It is a physical war and our guys know that. They are going to run the football and you have to run the football on them which is a challenge to do.”

There’s also familiarity in an unlikely place — Utah junior quarterback Troy Williams played his freshman year against ASU in Seattle as a Washington Husky.

Williams isn’t one of the top quarterbacks in the conference in terms of pure passers, but has had himself a nice season, tossing nine touchdowns and is on pace to throw for 2,000 yards this season, while also running for 175 yards on 77 carries.

The Utes, like most offenses who face ASU, are well aware of the fact that the Sun Devils will plan to bring pressure.

"They're by far the most heavily blitzed team we've faced all year," Utah quarterback Troy Williams told AP’s John Marshall. "Arizona State really bases their defense upon trying to pressure the quarterback. This will be a good challenge for us."

Although Graham said redshirt sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins and four of the 10 other injured starters would play, it’s unclear if junior running back Demario Richard, who missed last week’s game against Oregon, will as well. The Utes and senior defensive tackle Tasoni Pasini are planning to handle whatever ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey throws at them.

“We had to watch a bunch of film,” Pasini said to Deseret News. “Definitely a lot of film on what they might give, what we can see, what we might see. We watched whatever we can ... We don’t know what they’re going to do, so we’ll wait until Thursday and see what they have.”

An ASU win would improve the Sun Devils to 4-1 against Utah under Graham and clinch bowl eligibility for the sixth straight season.

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