Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham (Seventh year, 60-22 record)
Conference: Pac-12 (South division)
9/1/11 Montana State (W, 27-10)
9/10/11 at USC (L, 23-14)
9/17/11 BYU (W, 54-10)
10/1/11 Washington (L, 31-14)
10/8/11 Arizona State
10/15/11 at Pittsburgh
10/22/11 at California
10/29/11 Oregon State
11/5/11 at Arizona
11/19/11 at Washington State
The conversation starter for any Utah-ASU preview has to begin with the unavailability of the Utes' starting quarterback Jordan Wynn. Though Wynn has clearly been hampered by a previous injury that sidelined him in the offseason, after missing the second half against Washington last week Utah's signal caller is expected to miss at least two to three weeks of action.
In Wynn's absence, Jon Hays steps into the starting role for a massively significant game for Utah, as a loss and a 0-3 start in Pac-12 play could all but erase the Utes' hopes at a south division crown.
There isn't a great deal known about Hays, largely because he came to Utah after his previous school, Nebraska-Omaha, axed its football program. The 6-foot, 212-pounder last played at California's Butte College, where he paired with ASU's wide receiver Rashad Ross.
Hays is considered to be a formidable running threat, but in his first bit of substantial action his results were definitely mixed as he turned the ball over twice in the second half against Washington, opening the door for the Huskies to gain insurmountable separation on the Utes.
In total, Hays completed 10-of-16 passes for 156 yards with one touchdown, one interception and one lost fumble, but the majority of his positive passing numbers came on a drive with 2:30 remaining and Washington comfortably ahead by 24 points.
Utah's offense ranks among the Pac-12's poorer units, and with a first-game starter at the helm, the pressure—both from Ute fans and ASU's defense—will be smack dab in Hays' face.
It is very likely that Utah will consistently rely on its talented first-year running back, former junior college transfer John White IV. The 5-foot-8, 186-pound junior ranks among the league's most accomplished backs with 415 yards and five touchdowns on 75 carries.
White has the ability to beat defenses in a number of ways and is also a qualified receiver out of the backfield, and it can be expected that his number is called early and often for Utah.
Highly touted true freshman Harvey Langi is White's top backup and has seen action this season, albeit in a limited role, with a total of six carries for 34 yards.
Senior Tauni Vakapuna is listed third on the depth chart but ranks second on the team with 16 carries for 22 yards.
At fullback, Arizona native Luke Matthews tops the depth chart, backed by Dallin Rogers and Shawn Asiata. Dallin is prominently featured in the pass game, having hauled in 16 passes for 143 yards and a score.
Wide receiver DeVonte Christopher may very well be Utah's most talented skill player and is on pace for a 1,000-yard season with 21 catches for 330 yards and two touchdowns through four games.
Dres Anderson is a solid complement to Christopher and is Utah's top statistical deep threat with a team-high 16.2-yard average with 195 yards on 12 catches with two scores. Speedster Reggie Dunn and big-bodied target Dexter Ransom—a one-time Arizona commit—are listed as the top reserves behind Christopher and Anderson. The pair has combined for four receptions for 38 yards on the year.
Kendrick Moaei and Jake Murphy, the son of former MLB star Dale Murphy, are the top two tight ends for the Utes. Both players have been involved in the offense thus far, combining for nine catches for 80 yards and a touchdown.
A strength of Utah's offense undoubtedly is its front five, specifically its tackles. Right tackle Troy Bergstrom, an all-conference candidate, is expected to return after missing time due to injury; however, if Bergstrom is limited or absent, Sam Brenner will take his spot. On the left side, John Cullen, a name many Sun Devil fans will remember from Cullen's time as a top-flight junior college prospect, mans the tackle position for the second straight year.
Miles Mason is slated as the top left guard with Brenner at right guard if Bergstrom is able to start. If Brenner is forced to play tackle, Latu Heimuli likely will start at right guard. Junior Tevita Stevens is spotted as the starting center.
Utah's Offense in a Nutshell
Between a green quarterback, a solid running back and a stable offensive line, there's no doubt that the run game will be first and foremost in the playbook. Though there is also proven talent in the pass game, it's doubtful that the coaches will let Hays sling the ball from sideline to sideline. Therefore, the Devils' main objective needs to be crashing the backfield, limiting White and pressing Hays into mistakes.
Defense Preview Utah's front seven is both stout and athletic, with powerful linemen and versatile linebackers that can both attack and react, potentially giving ASU a multitude of complications.
Up front, tackles Star Lotulelei (11 tackles, 3.5 TFL) and Dave Kruger (seven tackles) are listed as the starters with James Aiono (one tackle) not far behind. Lotulelei is considered the star of the group, as the 325-pounder has very clear pro potential. On the ends, Joe Kruger (five tackles, 1.5 TFL) and Derrick Shelby (13 tackles, 2.0 sacks) are the starters, and very steady ones.
The Utes' linebacker trio consisting of stud Brian Blechen (27 tackles, two interceptions), Matt Martinez (24 tackles) and Chaz Walker (38 tackles) comprise Utah's top three tacklers on the year and bring a collective athletic quality not drastically dissimilar to that of ASU's linebackers.
By comparison, Utah's secondary is much less talented than its front seven, as the Utes rank ninth in the Pac-12 in pass defense compared to its fourth place league standing against the run.
Ryan Lacy (21 tackles, one interception) and Conroy Black (nine tackles) are listed as the starting cornerbacks with Wykie Freeman and Mo Lee (two tackles) behind them. Eric Rowe (22 tackles), Quade Chappuis (14 tackles, one interception), Michael Walker (nine tackles) and Keith McGill (12 tackles) all see time at safety, while Reggie Topps (13 tackles) and Mike Honeycutt (two tackles) are tagged as the top nickel backs.
Utah's Defense in a Nutshell Though ASU may be able to pass effectively on Utah, a similar concern exists with the Utes to what emerged against Illinois; a talented front seven has the ability to pressure the Sun Devils from a variety of angles.
Additionally, with the possibility looming that ASU will have two first-time offensive line starters in center Kody Koebensky and right tackle Tyler Sulka, Utah will surely hope to attack Sun Devil quarterback Brock Osweiler as much as possible.
If ASU is able to protect better than it did in Champaign, Osweiler can pick apart Utah's secondary. But, if ASU is unable to block appropriately…well, Sun Devil fans remember how Brock was tossed around against Illinois.
Special Teams Preview Reggie Dunn is the top kick returner with a 23.6-yard average, with Ryan Lacy behind him averaging 23.0 yards.
At punt returner, Charles Henderson carries an 11.3-yard average on the year.
In basic terms, if ASU can overcome its offensive line losses and if Utah has trouble with its new quarterback, the Sun Devils are a decisive favorite. Though, of course, it must be mentioned that ASU has struggled in recent years in road games of any nature, so it is challenging to fully dive into faith in ASU at this point.
The Sun Devils need to showcase its best discipline and aggressiveness; if ASU attacks Hays relentlessly, the defense can break him. If ASU can account for Utah's defensive linemen and linebackers, the Devils should be able to produce enough drives to put the game out of reach.
In this matchup, the more frequently protected of the two quarterbacks and the more aggressive of the two defensive front sevens likely claims the win.
Keys to an ASU Victory
Make Hays Hazy
Vontaze Burfict, Jamaar Jarrett, Will Sutton—any and any defensive Sun Devil needs to introduce himself to Jon Hays early, often and in violent fashion. If ASU can push Hays around and cloud his judgment, ASU's chances soar.
Hold Up the Fort Up Front
Garth Gerhart is expected to be unavailable and Even Finkenberg will miss a few weeks of action, while Aderious Simmons is still not 100% from an injury suffered in the season opener. What this means is that ASU will have to rally the troops on the offensive line and make a concerted effort as a team to not let Brock Osweiler be too frequently harassed.
Be Smart to Start
In ASU's only other road game this season, a very poor start set the tone for the rest of the game. Last week, three consecutive turnovers to start the game would have been deadly against a more talented team. In what figures to be a hostile environment, ASU absolutely has to play efficiently early to avoid handing momentum over to the home team.
Lineup Notes and Injury News
• Offensive tackle Evan Finkenberg is out due to injury, center Garth Gerhart is highly questionable and offensive tackle Aderious Simmons will be limited.
• Center Kody Koebensky likely will make his first career start, as might right tackle Tyler Sulka.
• Defensive lineman Joita Te'i may see his first action of the year.