The Utah football team starts the month of November with a date in the desert against the 19th ranked Sun Devils of Arizona State. In 2013, Utah allowed a late fourth quarter touchdown to lose the home contest 19-20. Last season, the Sun Devils finished 8-1 in the Pac-12 (10-4 overall, ranked 20/21 Coaches/AP), winning the Pac-12 South. Head coach Todd Graham won Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Will this be the year Utah beats ASU? Can they break through on the road in the Pac-12?
Quick, who was the All-Pac-12 second team quarterback last season? If you said Taylor Kelly, you would be correct. Kelly returns for his senior season to lead the Sun Devils offense. Last season, Kelly threw for 3,635 yards, 28 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. The senior from Eagle, ID added 608 rushing yards and 9 rushing touchdowns last season as well. Including Kelly, the Sun Devils return seven offensive starters. All-Pac-12 performers wide receiver Jaelen Strong and offensive tackle Jamil Douglas are back. Strong leads all returning Pac-12 receivers in total yards from last season with 1,122 yards (on 75 receptions) with 7 touchdowns. The junior wide receiver is likely to improve on his numbers from last season with departures of several other key pass catchers like running back Marion Grice and tight end Chris Coyle. Junior running back DJ Foster will take over for the departed Grice. Foster can play slot wide receiver as well. He is a smaller, faster back than Grice, and there are other young players in the backfield that may also step up, like freshman Kalen Ballage.
Last season, the Utah defense performed well against the Sun Devils at home, giving up only 144 passing yards and 149 rushing yards. Kelly threw one touchdown pass and added two more rushing, even though Utah held him to -9 yards rushing. Strong was held in check, amassing only 3 catches for 8 yards. It was Grice with 136 rushing yards (6.8 yards per carry) that helped the Sun Devils win the game.
The major concern for the defending Pac-12 South champions is the loss of 9 defensive starters, including all the major contributors like Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Alden Darby, and Robert Nelson. This is good news for Utah fans because the ASU defense held the Utah offense to 247 total yards (Utah quarterback Travis Wilson only completed 6 passes in the game). To reload, ASU has added several highly touted junior college transfers and true freshmen, but one has to expect a drop off for the Sun Devil defense due to replacing 9 starters. Dalvon Stuckey, a very highly recruited junior college defensive tackle (and the player who was supposed to replace Sutton) did not qualify academically. Another highly recruited defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood (a true freshman) is now the likely replacement for Sutton. The replacement for Bradford at the Devilbacker position is probably Antonio Longino, a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position. Nick Krueger of House of Sparky (houseofsparky.com) said that Utah will likely have the most success passing against the ASU secondary since that is the area where Krueger is most concerned with the defense.
The Sun Devils are a much better team at home than on the road (much like Utah). The last trip Utah made to Sun Devil Stadium was a 37-7 beat down in 2012. ASU looked solid in their opening game of the 2014 season with a 45-14 win over Weber State. With the game so late in the season, that gives the inexperienced defense for ASU plenty of time to get all the kinks worked out before their showdown with an improved Utes offense. The game should be much higher scoring this year than last year, which Krueger also believes will be the case. Utah has not beaten the Sun Devils as a member of the Pac-12, and playing the game in Tempe will only make it that much more difficult for the Utes to break through.