No. 17 Utah (6-1, 3-1 in the Pac-12) will look to beat no. 14 Arizona State (6-1, 4-1 in the Pac-12) in Tempe, Ariz. tonight for the first time since 1976. The Utes have lost 10 straight games to the Sun Devils dating back to when both teams were still in the Western Athletic Conference. Utah is 0-3 against ASU since joining the Pac-12, falling 35-14 in Salt Lake City in 2011, 37-7 in Tempe in 2012, and 20-19 last season in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The battle between the two ranked teams will go a long way toward settling the wild Pac-12 South race. Currently, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah all have only one Pac-12 loss, and none have played each other. Arizona State has the easier remaining road in Pac-12 left (with only one ranked Pac-12 opponent left, Arizona), where the Utes have to play ranked teams Oregon and Arizona and have to travel to two-time defending Pac-12 champion Stanford. Given the remaining schedules, the game is more of a must-win for Utah than Arizona State.
Arizona State will start Taylor Kelly at quarterback. Kelly suffered a foot injury against Colorado and missed the next three games before returning last week against Washington. Backup quarterback Mike Bercovici filled in admirably for ASU, going 2-1 (beating USC and Stanford and falling to UCLA). Kelly is a true dual-threat quarterback, where Bercovici is more of a classic pocket passer.
Kelly has multiple talented receivers. Wide receiver Jaelon Strong (6-3, 215) may be the first wide receiver taken in the NFL draft. He leads the team in receptions with 52 (32.9 percent of the team's total receptions, the highest of any Pac-12 receiver), yards with 744, and touchdowns with seven. ASU's second leading receiver is running back DJ Foster. Foster splits time between running back and slot receiver for the Sun Devils. In the last four games, Foster has been doing more damage through the air than on the ground (34.5 rushing yards per game; 71.3 yards per game receiving).
The Utah passing game that only managed 163 total passing yards between quarterbacks Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson in games at UCLA and Oregon State rebounded last week at home against USC with Wilson throwing for 194 yards with the game winning touchdown pass. The USC game was the only game so far this season that Thompson has not appeared.
The announcement on Wednesday that senior wide receiver Dres Anderson would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury certainly didn't help the Utes passing attack. Anderson led the team in yards (355) and touchdowns (4) and was second in receptions (22). The loss of Anderson will force receivers like Kenneth Scott, Kaelin Clay, and Tim Patrick to step up. The tight end may play a more involved role as well. Tight End Westlee Tonga had a breakout game against USC last week, leading the team with six receptions and 71 yards. Tonga proved to be a reliable target for Wilson all game.
The battle in the trenches may be key to deciding who wins the game. Utah leads the nation in sacks with 35 in seven games (5.0 per game). Arizona State allows 2.57 sacks per game (99th in the nation). To make matters worse, ASU will likely be without left guard Christian Westerman, who has a leg injury. The decent Arizona State rushing offense (185.9 yards per game, 49th) will face a stout Utah rushing defense (112.1 yards per game, 19th).
Arizona State has had trouble at times stopping the run (180.4, 87th), especially early in the season. The defense has settled in against Stanford and Washington, only allowing 113.5 yards per game in those two games. The ASU defense will have to deal with Utah running back Devontae Booker, who has four straight games rushing for at least 100 yard. Booker leads the Pac-12 in yards per conference game with 166.3 yards. He has also added eight touchdowns on the ground. The Utah offensive line, which looked like a weak point early in the year but has proved to be a strength in recent weeks, has been especially good blocking for Booker.
If Utah hopes to end their 34-year drought in the desert, there are a few things the Utes will need to do. Wilson will need to continue to show the poise and consistency he showed last week against USC. The receivers and tight ends will need to step up for their fallen comrade to open up the running game for Booker. Booker will need to have another big game, and on defense, the Utes will need to pressure Kelly and limit the production of ASU's stars Kelly, Strong, and Foster. Because getting a win in Tempe is never easy, Utah will have to play their most complete game of the season.