Arizona State is a very talented and experienced team that, on paper, should probably beat Utah. However, they're not perfect and have proven already this season that they're imperfect enough where a game against a mismatched opponent on the road isn't a guarantee. Last week, against Oregon State, the Sun Devils found themselves in a dog fight and though they pulled away late, the Beavers really gave Arizona State a run for their money.
So this certainly isn't a dominant team like Oregon or Stanford and the fact this game is being played in Salt Lake City helps boost the Utes' chances. However, how good are those chances, even considering home field advantage and the Sun Devils' recent struggles away from Tempe (even this season, their lone loss came on the road, where they're 0-1)?
Of course, it's not like Utah is rolling into this game. They're lost right now, trying to find a path back to division contention and with so much uncertainty, it's not hard to see a potential loss - maybe even an ugly one - Saturday afternoon.
That's what makes this game so intriguing. You've got one team trying to salvage their season and the other trying to legitimize it. For three years, Dennis Erickson has tried to convince the Arizona State faithful that the program is heading in the right direction and that this will be their true breakout year. A 4-1 start will certainly reinforce that. A loss, though, will bring back doubt the program is not consistent enough to contend with the elite of the conference - a prospect they don't want to face heading into their huge showdown with Oregon next week.
So, who steps up? Will Utah save their season or will Arizona State prove this year is different than the past three?
If that answer is the former, the Utes will need the following to happen...
Can they produce a consistent ground attack?
I like John White and think he's capable of being a solid back for the Utes. However, it's an understatement to say the running game for Utah this season has been pretty underwhelming.
Maybe that should be expected with how inexperienced they are at this spot, but even so, their performance against Washington was abysmal. White, fresh off a dynamic performance against BYU two weeks prior, was held to only 35 yards on the ground and an awful 2.5 average. That will have to improve greatly if the Utes are going to have a chance, because if Utah finishes with a total of 17 yards this weekend, they're going to lose badly.
Can Jon Hays deliver?
Hays very well could step into his new role nicely and lead the Utes to victory. But right now, no one can say definitively whether he has that ability because there just hasn't been enough of a sample size to form a solid opinion either way.
This might be the most interesting thing about Saturday because Hays is such an unknown. He's a blank slate filled with our hopes of what a quarterback should be. We don't know if he's going to be great, just good or awful. I don't think the latter is possible, but even so, will just good get the job done, especially if Utah lacks a running game?
Obviously the attention will be on what he does and how he manages the game. I'm hopeful that, like Brett Ratliff in '05, he does handle that well and we're discussing his great performance in a season-saving victory.
Can Utah's secondary stop Brock Osweiler?
Osweiler is a very talented quarterback capable of ripping apart suspect secondaries. He might be one of the more talented quarterbacks, overall, the Utes face this season and Utah's ability to really step up and shut down the pass could ultimately decide if they're going to keep up with the Sun Devils or if this, like last weekend, is going to turn ugly in the second half.
With that said, Osweiler is not perfect. He's thrown six interceptions on the season, including three last weekend, and that might be ASU's undoing at least once this season. In their loss against Illinois, a road game, he was only 25 of 45 for 256 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
A similar performance against Utah could spell doom.
Can Utah return to being a turnover-forcing machine?
Forcing turnovers was a big reason the Utes won against BYU and were competitive against SC. Giving up turnovers, however, was a big reason Utah got its butt handed to them against Washington last weekend.
If they're going to have a chance against the Sun Devils, they have to finish in positive territory in turnover margin. Last week was awful and the exact opposite of their game against BYU, so maybe this weekend will be a return of some sorts to balance, though I am not expecting ASU to finish with seven turnovers like the Cougars a few weeks ago.
Can Utah come out firing?
I think this is a game where the Utes will need to come out firing early. I don't believe they can fall behind like last week and play from behind. When you're struggling, it's important you get in front of the other team and force them to play catch up. It helps build your confidence and more importantly, it might force the opponent into making a mistake or two.
If, however, Utah falls behind early, they could be in trouble. The crowd will quickly lose confidence in the players and the players will probably begin to lose confidence in themselves. Worse, they might just flat out give up, something they appeared to do in the second half of last week's game when it became clear Jordan Wynn would be out the remainder of the game.
So I do think this is a game where the Utes need to set the tone early. If they can, if they can put the Sun Devils on the defensive, and get the crowd really into the game, a win is very likely.
I've said I do not believe this is a must-win game for Utah. We should treat it as such, but don't pin too much on this one because a loss is still possible and I'd hate to throw away the remainder of the season because we couldn't knock off a top-25 team at home.
With that said, this would be a season saving victory. If the Utes do manage to win Saturday, the season is completely altered and the outlook far more positive than it was when we entered the game.
But it's going to take a very good effort. This isn't a game where Utah can just amble through and win in the closing minutes. If they're going to win it, they'll need to fight for it. I don't doubt for a second Kyle Whittingham will have his team ready to do just that.
Here's to it working and Utah leaves RES Saturday with their first ever Pac-12 victory.