Utah preview

It may be premature to call the fourth contest of a season as the proverbial must-win game, but Saturday's matchup in Tempe between Utah (1-1) and ASU (2-1) is indeed crucial for both programs. The Sun Devils would love to quickly bounce back from their loss at Missouri, while the Utes desire to build on the momentum from their win over BYU.

Devils Digest's Joe Healey examines the league opener for both of these Pac-12 foes.

Offensive Preview

With the recent injury retirement of starting quarterback Jordan Wynn, Jon Hays steps in as Utah's first-string quarterback. Though not a superstar by any means, Hays does bring game experience to the Ute lineup as he started the final nine games of 2011 including ASU's win over Utah in Salt Lake City.

In last year's contest, turnovers were the clear undoing for the Utes, so ASU will clearly work to attack and rattle Hays into iffy ball control.

Behind Hays, the tall and athletic freshman Travis Wilson will see snaps as he has all year long.

Utah boasts one of the nation's unsung workhorses in running back John White IV, who had a school record-setting effort in 2011 in his first year at Utah after a successful junior college career. Regardless what happens at quarterback, White is always expected to shoulder the majority of the offensive load to the tune of 25-30 carries per game. The health status of White, however, is uncertain as he did not play last week against BYU and reportedly was limited in practice this week.

Redshirt freshman Jarrell Oliver, junior college transfer Kelvin York and sophomore Lucky Radley complete the depth chart at running back, but the trio has been less than stellar this year as each member averages under three yards per carry. Speedy wide receiver Reggie Dunn may also carry the ball if White is limited or out of the lineup.

As a team, Utah averages only 2.7 yards per carry with three rush touchdowns—two by quarterback Travis Wilson. Outside of White's 107.5 yards per game, Utah manages only 5.2 additional net yards, making his presence vital to the Utes' success.

In the pass game, the distribution has been fairly even between players such as receiver Devonte Christopher, tight end Jake Murphy, receiver Dres Anderson, Dunn, and tight end Jake Rolf. Christopher leads the team in receptions, Anderson in receiving yards, while Murphy and receiver Kenneth Scott tie for the team lead in touchdown catches.

According to Utah's weekly press release, the starting offensive line figures to consist of senior left tackle Sam Brenner, junior left guard Jeremiah Tofaeono, senior center Tevita Stevens, junior right guard Vyncent Jones and true freshman right tackle Jeremiah Poutasi. Brenner and Poutasi are fill-ins for Miles Mason and Percy Taumoelau, who were the starting tackles in each of the two first games of the season.

Offense in a Nutshell

Utah has talented pieces in the pass game, but a great deal of that success derives from what the Utes can put forth on the ground. If White is not 100%, an excellent opportunity could be given to the Sun Devils. However, ASU can't simply give Hays open opportunities to throw the ball out of the narrow-minded hopes of shutting down the Utah ground game. In the end, however, Utah's success likely will hinge on how Hays is able to orchestrate the offense.

Defensive Preview

Now matter what the health situation is at quarterback and running back for Utah, the Utes have been able to rely on a tremendous defense since entering the Pac-12 Conference last year.

It all starts—but isn't limited to—the man up front, senior tackle Star Lotulelei, a predicted high first-round NFL Draft pick next spring. With size (6-4, 320) and athleticism off the charts, Lotulelei dominates interior offensive lines and leads Utah's charge to shut down opposing run games. Lotulelei leads Utah in tackles-for-loss (3.0), and is tied for the lead in pass breakups (two) and forced fumbles (two) while also amazingly pacing the squad in solo tackles (10).

Joining Lotulelei on the Ute line is a pair of talented brothers, Dave and Joe Kruger, who start at tackle and right end respectively. Both are tall, physical and versatile and can take quick advantage of teams trying solely to hone in on blocking Lotulelei.

Nate Fakahafua starts at left end, while Trevor Reilly, one of the defense's most versatile players, is the starter at "Stud" linebacker but also slides down to defensive end where he is listed as the top reserve behind both Fakahafua and Joe Kruger.

Elsewhere at linebacker, V.J. Fehoko and Boo Anderson are listed as options at middle linebacker, while L.T. Filiaga and Dave Fagergren are the top candidates at "Rover" linebacker. Fehoko and Fagergren started the first two games but Anderson and Filiaga both filled in last week against BYU, giving the Utes seasoned, capable depth at linebacker.

In the secondary, the big news is the return of strong safety Brian Blechen, one of the team's most talented overall defenders, who is back in action after an early season suspension. Blechen pairs with free safety Eric Rowe to form one of the Pac-12's best safety duos, a group that Sun Devil quarterback Taylor Kelly will undoubtedly need to keep his eye on at all times.

At cornerback, seniors Ryan Lacy, Mo Lee and Reggie Topps are likely to see the bulk of the reps, with Topps listed as the first-string nickel back for the Utes.

Defense in a Nutshell

There's no doubt about it, ASU has it's work cut out against the Utes as Utah ranks in the nation's top-30 in rush defense, pass defense, total defense and scoring defense.

Utah has talent from front to back, with the most prime performers standing on the defensive line. The Sun Devil offensive line has to play its best game of the season to prevent the likes of Lotulelei and the Krugers from crashing down on the Devils. Taylor Kelly's decision-making skills will be tested just as they were at Missouri last week, making it essential that he cut down on costly turnovers.

If ASU is unable to move the ball and even worse, if it turns the ball over multiple times, the Sun Devils will likely hand the game to Utah on a silver platter. Ball control and quick, smart decisions will be the keys Saturday.

Special Teams Preview

Senior Coleman Peterson handles the placekicking duties for Utah, while senior Sean Sellwood is listed as the top punter. However, last week freshman Tom Hackett filled in for Sellwood and ended up earning Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week recognition for his effort.

Charles Henderson handles punt returns, with DeVonte Christopher, Henderson and Reggie Dunn as the primary kick returners. Henderson has shown some major skills in the return game by averaging 14.8 yards on six returns, with a long run of 57 yards.

Conclusion

When Utah has the ball—and if White is in the game and healthy—ASU must balance its attempts to limit the run game but not let the talented Ute receivers and tight ends find easy holes to get open. The Sun Devils absolutely must find a way to rattle the Ute offense and, just like last year, give themselves short fields by way of turnovers.

When ASU is on offense, efficiency and near perfection are the keys; the line must hold firm, the quarterbacks have to make smart decisions and the receivers have to run crisp routes and catch passes when open.

Utah's stingy defense won't allow many opportunities for ASU to succeed, so the Devils have to create their own chances and take advantage of the few that do surface.

Keys to a Sun Devil Victory

Like White on Rice

If White is in the game and healthy for Utah, ASU has to find a way to limit his productivity. Run defense hasn't necessarily been ASU's strong suit thus far in 2012, so the team will have to rally and form an impenetrable wall. If White—or any of Utah's runners—has frequent free will in the run game, the Sun Devils will face a mighty uphill battle.

Turnover Party Part II

Last year's contest in Salt Lake City featured a bevy of turnovers forced by the Sun Devils, which enabled ASU to coast to a sizeable victory. This season, to repeat those feats would be perfectly timed, as the Devils need any advantage they can gain on offense. Look for active players such as Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and Chris Young to jar balls loose in the backfield while athletes like Alden Darby, Brandon Magee and Keelan Johnson try to pick passes off.

Star Search

Though it's impossible to miss the gargantuan, dominant Star Lotulelei when he's on the field for the Utes, teams still have a near impossible time containing him. ASU can do itself an immeasurable favor by finding some way to will itself toward limiting Lotulelei. However, the focus can't simply be placed his way as Lotulelei's line mates such as the Kruger brothers and in many cases Trevor Reilly can pack major power as well. The Sun Devil offense line will be firmly tested Saturday evening and its collective play likely will determine ASU's fate.

Familiar Faces

• Utah offensive lineman J.J. Dielman and wide receiver Luke Matthews both attended Phoenix's Desert Vista High School, as did ASU's Marcus Washington.

• Utah defensive end Lorenzo Ford, defensive tackle Niasi Leota, defensive lineman Junior Salt all attended Mt. San Antonio College, as did ASU wide receiver Alonzo Agwuenu.

• Utah's Jon Hays was the quarterback for ASU receiver Rashad Ross while at Butte College.

• Utah offensive lineman Hiva Lutui was a teammate of ASU's Laiu Moeakiola at Euless (Texas.) Trinity High School.

• Utah wide receiver Quinton Pedroza was verbally committed to ASU before signing with Utah in 2011.

• Utah defensive back Joseph Smith attended Norco (Calif.) High School, as did ASU's Carl Brad Ford, Kyle Johnson and Deantre Lewis.


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