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Opponent Preview: Arizona State Defense

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Utes may have only played two conference games, and aren’t even to the true halfway point of their overall schedule, but Saturday’s matchup against #18 Arizona State certainly feels like the kind of game that will ultimately decide who wins the south. Both teams are undefeated in conference play, meaning sole possession of first place is on the line, but the victor also has the luxury of being able to lose a conference game later on down the road and still maintain an advantage in a tie-breaking scenario when head-to-head results matter more.

For their part, the Sun Devils will come into Rice-Eccles with the best overall defense in the PAC-12. Ranked 13th nationally, the only defense the Utes have faced that is better (on paper) are the Aztecs of San Diego State, who dealt Utah their last loss of the season in a triple-overtime thriller that saw Cam Rising take the reigns to come from behind and put a struggling Ute offense in a position to win in the closing minutes. There’s every reason to believe Utah is a measurably better team now than they were in that week three loss, and that optimism is reflected in the betting line, which at press time, sits dead even, with ESPN’s Football Power Index giving a slight advantage to the Utes, who hold a 52.8% chance to win.

Senior linebacking trio Kyle Soelle (6’3”, 235 lbs), Darien Butler (6’0”, 225 lbs), and Merlin Robertson (6’3”, 240 lbs) have combined for 107 total tackles this season, making up 29% of all of ASU’s overall tackles, along with three sacks and three interceptions. Undoubtedly the heart of the defense, even if SDSU is a better defense by the numbers, the Utes haven’t faced, and likely won’t face a three-headed monster quite as intimidating as Soelle, Butler, and Robertson.

In the secondary, senior cornerback Jack Jones (5’10”, 175 lbs) and senior free safety DeAndre Pierce (5’11”, 185 lbs) have been nightmares for opposing offenses, combining for three INTs, one of which was returned for a dramatic pick-six last week against Stanford, a game where the Sun Devil’s secondary picked off Cardinal QB Tanner McKee three different times, a stat made all the more impressive when you consider McKee was just one of ten quarterbacks nationally to have thrown for at least five TDs with no INTs until ASU had their way with him. That exclusive club now includes Utah’s own Cam Rising, who is coming off a three TD performance against USC, giving him seven passing TDs on the season with no INTs.

Arkansas, Florida, Texas A&M, and Texas currently sit within the top 25 with two losses. All of them except Florida have one thing on their resume the Utes don’t: a win against a top 25 team. Not only does Saturday help to fill in the blanks for the race to the top of the PAC-12 South, but a win for Utah would go a long way in restoring their perception nationally, but Utah’s offense can’t be the same lackluster unit we’ve seen at Rice-Eccles all season.