Know Your Foe: Utah

Not that ASU is the picture of health going into this week's game versus Utah, but the Utes are probably hurting even more with their starting QB sidelined. How can Utah compensate for the loss of Jordan Wynn? What challenges do they still pose for ASU? Devils Digest invited Publisher Brian Swinney to answer those questions and others by ASU fans on the Sun Devils' next opponent.

How would you assess Utah's play on both sides of the ball so far this season? Are the majority of the fans surprised with the 2-2, 0-2 Pac-12 record, or did [they] expect a rough beginning in a new conference?

There are a couple of questions in here, but they tie together so I'm going to answer them both at once.

We're only 4 games into this season, but it almost feels like we've played 12. This team has seen some ups-and-downs so far and the term ‘Jekyll and Hyde' comes to mind.

In the opener against Montana State, the offense struggled while the defense dominated. Against USC the offense looked better, but not fantastic but better, and the defense continued to play well.

Week three at BYU was a complete surprise. The defense forced 7 turnovers; 4 fumbles 3 interceptions, two of which resulted in touchdowns. The offense exploded as well. Quarterback Jordan Wynn had his best game of the season that night and running back John White IV rushed for 174 yards and 3 TDs. Players and fans were flying high heading into the bye week.

Last week's game against Washington came as a complete surprise to fans, not because they expected to roll through the conference but because of the clear, visual progress the team was making each week capped off by the performance in the BYU game. The game opened with a Utah fumbled kick return resulting in a Husky TD and it snowballed from there. The offense struggled, the defense looked surprisingly bad, and the Utes got blown out at home which doesn't often happen.

Ute fans are surprised at the 0-2 Pac-12 start, but they also expected growing pains. A lot of the surprise comes from how the UW game was lost because it was viewed as a very winnable matchup. I think the majority of fans were hoping for a 1-1 start, or at least a very competitive 0-2 heading into the ASU game, but the way the last game ended has a lot of fans scratching their heads right now.

Aside from the QB injury issue, are there any other key injuries you feel are hurting the team?

Obviously the injury to quarterback Jordan Wynn stands out, but the injury suffered by right tackle Tony Bergstrom may turn out to be just as impactful to this team.

Bergstrom is a senior, a team captain, and has been a solid mainstay on this offensive line for years. The o-line was one of the thinnest position groups for the Utes heading into the season. Utah was forced to move defensive tackle Latu Heimuli to the offensive line during fall camp to give depth to the already ailing group, and started Miles Mason week 1 after only being with the team for two weeks.

Because of early injuries Utah has played 10 different offensive linemen through four games. Any additional injuries to the line were going to be tough to deal with, but Bergstrom most of all. His absence was clear against Washington; the line struggled to get any kind of push in the run game and allowed two sacks. Bergstrom is questionable to return this week.

Who do you see as the Utes standout offensive and defensive players so far this year?

On offense I'd say it's a toss-up between wide receivers Devonte Christopher and Dres Anderson. Christopher seemed to become a reliable favorite for Wynn before Wynn's injury last week. Christopher has gone over 100 yards receiving two out of the last three games and has two touchdowns this season. Anderson has become the big-play guy showing a great ability to make guys miss and run for yards after the catch. Anderson also has two receiving touchdowns this season. John White at running back has been superb at times, and abysmal at others. He is too inconsistent right now to be considered a major threat.

The defensive unit has been solid but doesn't have many ‘standout' guys. Corner Ryan Lacy and MLB Chaz Walker have been the most consistent and are definitely players to watch for. Lacy entered the season as a member of a completely new defensive backfield for the Utes after all four starters from last year's team graduated or left for the draft. Lacy has done an excellent job containing receivers on his side of the field and has one interception this year. Chaz Walker won't stand out on film but is easily the most consistent player on the defense. Walker led the team in tackles last year and is currently in the lead again this season. He is excellent in the run game, tackles very well, and always finds himself around the ball.

Also keep an eye out for OLB Brian Blechen. Blechen has two interceptions this season and plays the LB position like a safety. He's the biggest hitter on the Utah defense and always finds ways to make plays.

The Washington game featured less than stellar defensive effort than we have become used to from the Utes. Do you think it was more because of the offensive scheme the Huskies employed or was there another factor that was the main contributor in not being able to stop Washington?

The Washington game was essentially a game of two halves for the Ute defense.

The first half may have been the finest half of football we've seen to this point from the Utes, with partial credit given to the offense for sustained, methodical drives. Utah held an explosive Washington offense to just 3 points, which came after two post-whistle penalties that extended Washington's final drive of the first half. Utah shut down Washington's run game in that half, and flustered QB Keith Price.

The second half on the other hand may have been the worst half of football we've seen from the Utah defense. The defensive front wore down, and linebackers missed tackles. Washington scored three touchdowns on four drives in the 3rd quarter.

Meanwhile Utah's offense didn't offer much help, lasting only four total plays over their next two drives. This certainly contributed to the fatigue in Utah's front seven. Another factor which can't be ignored was the loss of QB Jordan Wynn. This may seem unrelated in theory, but after Washington scored on their first drive of the second half, Utah's defense felt extra pressure to make a play and put up points to help their team. Players started gambling on plays, attempting to strip ball carriers instead of making the sure tackle.

On one play inside Utah territory, Utah linebacker Brian Blechen properly read a Washington receiver's route on 3rd down, and rather than opt for the safe defensive play, Blechen jumped the route hoping for a pick 6. Washington QB Keith Price threw a nice ball with enough height that it floated over the outstretched arms of Blechen and into the hands of Washington WR Jermaine Kearse who jogged the remaining 15 yards into the end zone. Utah's defense is generally assignment sound, but in the 2nd half against Washington, they showed very little resolve and discipline.

Would it be fair to say that the team is now demoralized knowing they will be playing the next few games without Wynn or do you sense that this squad is more resilient than people give them credit?

In the second half against Washington, the team was certainly demoralized knowing they would be forced to play without Wynn. After that loss, there's little doubt that the team was demoralized, realizing that their hopes for a south division crown had all but vanished. That said, Kyle Whittingham and his staff have faced strikingly similar situations many times over the past several years, and they know how to rally their team to win a game when undermanned. Heading into the Arizona State game, Utah's players believe they will win the game. Historically, Whittingham has been very successful on keeping his team's focus on the challenge at hand. However, if the team falls behind early to Arizona State, how this team responds is yet to be seen. Without QB Jordan Wynn in the lineup, how does the Utes' offense change with Jon Hays under center?

With Norm Chow taking over the offense, Utah vowed to run a more pro-style offense, with QB Jordan Wynn under center. The shotgun spread-offense of previous years had been shelved, with only remnants remaining.

With backup QB Jon Hays getting the start in place of the injured Wynn, Utah will revert back to more shotgun formations, with run-options for the more mobile Hays. In junior college, Hays played a lot from the shotgun, and Chow & crew have already said they will do their best to make Hays comfortable, even if that means they play primarily from the shotgun.

Schematically, we will also see some different packages from the Utes that will feature former backup QB turned LB, turned back to QB this week Griff Robles playing out of the wildcat. Robles is a very big and very mobile QB who lost the backup job this spring to true freshman QB Tyler Shreve. Utah moved Robles to linebacker, hoping they wouldn't waste the athletic ability that Robles was born with.

We may also see Utah's best WR DeVonte Christopher take some snaps out of the wildcat package. Christopher was an all-state QB out of Nevada with very high expectations. When Christopher found himself buried on the depth chart early at Utah, the coaches switched him to WR hoping to again utilize his terrific athletic ability.

The biggest impact to Utah's offense out of the shotgun may be the transition forced upon RB John White, who will not be forced to get touches out of different packages.

Utah is a team that has experienced a lot of success in the Mountain West conference. Do they feel that their current record is simply a product of facing tougher competition than ever before or are there other factors affecting the record?

I think there are multiple factors that have played into them being 2-2 at this point, with injuries being the most glaring. We're not watching the same Jordan Wynn that we saw at the beginning of last season and now that he's out, the Utes really don't have a serviceable backup to step in and win a Pac 12 game.

The last few seasons, Utah has been very lucky with injuries as it hasn't been much of an issue, but it has caught up to them this season…and then some.

The tougher competition is also a factor in their record, but let's not forget that we're only 4 games in. 3-1 looks a lot better than 2-2, but at the end of the season, 7-5 may not look that much better than 6-6. With so few games having been played, a loss appears more significant now than it may at the end of the season.

If Utah makes that kick at the end of the USC game and wins in overtime (which isn't a stretch), the outsider view of Utah would be much different than it is now.

All that said, if Utah had opened with the same out of conference schedule as well as New Mexico and Wyoming instead of USC and Washington, they'd probably be 4-0, so the step up in competition has definitely been detrimental to their record.

How is Utah's depth? Is Utah seeing the need for greater depth now that they are playing a Pac-12 schedule?

The depth at Utah is hit and miss. There's no depth at quarterback, and running back has been a one man show. The receivers are loaded and will be unbelievable next season, although they're pretty good now. The tight ends are probably the deepest in the conference.

The offensive line though is a huge issue. The Utes have had injuries on the line and recruits that never made it on campus, setting everything back. They don't have more than six or seven guys that the coaches really trust right now and there are really only three guys that have played like Pac 12 linemen to this point. Another line injury could be devastating.

The defensive line is too deep with guys that would play at other Pac 12 schools aren't getting close to the field. Same thing for the linebackers, not that that's really a problem. The corner spot isn't much more than 4 deep and the safeties are all inexperienced, although there are a lot of players back there.

Talented depth is a big issue at too many spots right now, and it's going to take a few years of recruiting to fill those needs.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Utah defense?

The strength is right in the middle of the line. The tackles are all very good, with Star Lotulelei being great. There's a ton of depth there and at the end spots, although the sack numbers aren't anywhere near where the coaches want them.

The linebackers are undersized, but playmakers who understand the game and work well together. The corner sports are somewhat of a weakness, mainly because of the inconsistency of Ryan Lacy and the lack of depth, but Conroy Black should get some All Conference consideration by the end of the season. I have no idea what to make of the safeties. It's a 4-man rotation right now and none of them are playing exceptionally well. Too many blown assignments and bad angles. The lack of experience is definitely hurting. I'm surprised more teams don't throw on the Utes.

Does Utah see Colorado being by default their rival in the Pac-12 or is it just another team on the schedule? What Pac-12 teams do the fans look forward to seeing the most?

BYU is still the rival, at least for now. Colorado is not viewed as the Utah rival much at all at this point. Here is a poll that we conducted back in August to see who their rival is now and going forward:

Right now fans don't have much love for Arizona State because of the Michael Eubank recruitment and because the Sun Devils were projected (along with the Utes) to be the class of the Pac 12 South this season.

I think the rival will change based on who the best team in the conference is in that era. What that may end up doing though, is really keeping the Utes from having a rival, as they'll consider one team their rival, while that team doesn't consider Utah its own rival.

Right now ASU and USC appear to be the conference games that Utah fans have the most interest in.

Fill in the blank: If ASU does (blank) they will win the game. If Utah does (blank) they will win the game.

If ASU does what they should do, they will win the game. The loss of Jordan Wynn is too much for Utah to overcome unless the Devils make a lot of mistakes.

If Utah forces turnovers and finishes drives, they will win the game. The Utes are forcing more than three turnovers per game on average and turning those into points from their defense. They'll need to force a minimum of two turnovers and capitalize both times.

Utah has had problems finishing drives, often turning the ball over in the opponent's territory, giving it up on downs, or missing field goals. Since halftime of the USC game, Utah's nine longest drives in terms of time of possession have resulted in zero points. They're moving the ball, but hitting a wall. That can't happen.

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