ASU football looks forward to matchup with 'physical' Utah

The Sun Devils reflect on past games in lead up to Pac-12 South battle with Utes this coming Saturday

In preparation for ASU's meeting with the 13th ranked Utah Utes, the defense appears to have funneled their frustrations, built from a high-scoring affair with the Washington State Cougars, into a newfound intensity.

The defensive coaching staff of No. 17 ASU was well aware of the tall task ahead of them prior to their matchup with the Washington State Cougars. Their game plan instituted unique schemes, but was simple in its function.

They knew containing the talented Cougar offense was nearly impossible, so they prioritized limiting big plays and shutting down the long passing game.  

The defense was obviously elated to escape with the win, but giving up such high yardage and point totals was uncharted territory for a unit that had previously held all but one opponent under 18 points. 

Defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales acknowledged the defensive shortcomings immediately following Saturday’s game, admitting watching the film was going to make him “miserable.”

As ASU prepares for a matchup with the run-heavy Utes, the unit as a whole seems to be relishing the opportunity to return to a rougher brand of football. 

“I’m glad they’re running the ball as much as they do,” redshirt senior linebacker Khaylan Kearse-Thomas said. “I feel like this game fits more of our scheme. Coming downhill, physical, dominant.”

Gonzales seems almost giddy when breaking down the Utah offense. Despite specializing in the secondary, Gonzales has made it no secret how much he enjoys the violent nature of a sound running attack. It’s just one of the many similarities he has with head coach Herm Edwards, who built his NFL teams on their strength in the trenches. 

“He’s created a program a little bit like his image: tough, very tough,” Edwards said of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. “We better be prepared to put our shoulder pads on and tie them up tight because it’s going to be a tough football game.”

The defensive line has also expressed their excitement over facing the Utah offense. Redshirt senior defensive tackle George Lea talked at lengths about the differences between this week’s game plan and lasts, along with the importance of the defensive linemen to “establish a new line of scrimmage” against the stout Ute offensive line. 

“This week, the d-line has to step up and has to do more than we have been doing in past weeks,” Lea explained.

Utah’s reputation as a hard-nosed team does not stop on one side of the ball, as the ASU coaching staff is fully aware of the challenges the Ute defense will present the Sun Devils. 

Despite continued concerns stemming from the inexperienced offensive line, offensive coordinator Rob Likens is still confident in his unit’s ability to move the ball. 

“It’s going to be a really tough, physical matchup,” Likens said. “We’re just going to try and win ugly.”

A key component of Likens' “win ugly” strategy will likely include a heavy dosage of junior running back Eno Benjamin, who is coming off his strongest performance of the season last week against Washington State. 

Benjamin, who ran for 175 yards and scored two touchdowns in last year’s upset win over Utah, is prepared to continue his strong play against one of the conference’s most highly regarded defenses. 

“I thought they were a pretty physical team last year, and there’s some guys in that locker room who think so as well,” Benjamin said of the unit’s mentality. “So we’re preparing for a dog fight.” 

As anticipation continues to build for their matchup with Utah, ASU remains confident in its ability to pull off a third straight road win against a ranked opponent. 

It was expected at the season’s precipitous start that the path to a Pac-12 South crown would lead through Salt Lake City, and the assessment is proving true with both teams coming into the game at a conference-leading 5-1. 

As the team looks to take another significant step towards their ultimate goal of a Rose Bowl appearance, Benjamin has made the team’s shifting mentality clear. 

“I think we are to the point now where we don’t fear any opponent that comes in or that we go to,” Benjamin said. “I think now we’re at the point where teams should be scared of us.”


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

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