Know Your Foe: Utah

This season Utah registered arguably the biggest upset in the Pac-12 by beating Stanford, yet that victory remains their lone win in the conference play. What challenges do they still pose for Arizona State? Devils Digest invited Publisher Brian Swinney to answer those questions and others by Sparky's Huddle members on the Sun Devils' next opponent.

At 4-4, 1-4 Pac-12 do Utah fans views this season as a disappointment or was this considered to be a rebuilding year as it is? What have been the main culprits for this record?

Swinney: It was considered somewhat of a rebuilding year, and technically, their on pace for the 6-6 mark that most of us expected. There is disappointment in the way the team has played and the fact that they couldn't maintain the solid play after the big win over Stanford. The injuries to the receiving corps, poor play by the offensive tackles, and horrendous turnover differential have been the biggest reasons for the struggles this year.

There is obviously some intrigue for this match up with former ASU head coach Dennis Erickson serving as the Utes' co-offensive coordinator this year. What has been the perception of him in his first season in Salt Lake City and how has he impacted the program thus far?

Swinney: After the Stanford game, Erickson was the bee's knees in Salt Lake. Today? Not so much. What a difference a few weeks can make (also shows how fickle fans are). Erickson has been great for Utah this year. Play calling is much more imaginative and reliable. The offense was more explosive until injuries took their toll. Utah has no chance of going to a bowl game without Erickson this year. If they get there, Erickson will be the difference.

It seems that personality wise Erickson and head coach Kyle Whittingham could not be more different. How have the two meshed this season? Any awkwardness about the negative recruiting Utah was employing while Erickson was at ASU?

Swinney: They've meshed very well. Kyle pretty much has a head coach running things on offense now. He still looks at it, but has complete trust in what is going on there. Having two head coaches in the program has been a good thing, as Erickson has welcomed taking a backseat in the totality of what his duties are.

In general, what are some of the strengths and weaknesses Utah has exhibited this year on offense? Who have been some of the standout players?

Swinney: The offense has been so up and down that it's maddening. The interior of the line has been decent, but the tackles have been downright bad, especially in Pac 12 play. This is the opposite of what was expected coming into the season. Running back Bubba Poole has been solid when given a chance, and Travis Wilson has been good at times, while awful at others. Wide receiver Dres Anderson has been the most reliable weapon this year and needs to be accounted for. If a team slows him down, Utah will trouble moving the ball consistently.

Quarterback Travis Wilson had a hand injury prior to the Utes' bye week. How has he looked in practice and how healthy do you think he will be on Saturday?

Swinney: Wilson should be better. The hand injury has seemed to have more of a mental impact than physical. He just needs to have more confidence on game day. He should be fine to go by Saturday and at or near 100%.

What are your thoughts on the Utah defense in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, and overall play this year? Who have been some of the standout players?

Swinney: The strength is in the front seven, but they've had lapses this year where teams with speed have given them issues. The linebackers are good, and have been a surprise. If the defensive tackles have a good game, it makes everything else work. Keith McGill has been very good at corner, but Davion Orphey and Mike Honeycutt have been picked on in recent weeks. Utah has only picked off only two passes this year. TWO!!!! Their inability to force turnovers is an issue. This D is run by Trevor Reilly. He'll probably end up as a first team all Pac 12 player. Tenny Palepoi at tackle has been a rock while Jason Whittingham and Jared Norris have been much better than expected at linebacker. It all starts with Reilly though.

What kind of challenges do you feel ASU will present on offense and defense?

Swinney: Athletes. They've got tremendous athletes whereas Utah has average athletes. The Utes haven't shown the ability to slow down elite players on offense this year, and ASU has as many as any team they've played. Utah can stop a one dimensional team. The Sun Devils are dynamic both throwing the ball and running it. Utah won't stop them. They just need to slow the kids from Tempe down in some way. Defensively, the Sun Devils are good. Not great, but good. There are plenty of athletes. If they can get a consistent pass rush and keep Wilson from making any plays with his legs, Utah will be hard pressed to score more than 20.

Utah seems to be doing very well each year recruiting Polynesian players. Are they some significant factors that are responsible for that?

Swinney: The coaching staff has a strong Polynesian influence, and that helps. The state of Utah also has a growing Poly population. Combine that with the LDS influence at Utah, and many Polynesians practicing that faith, it ends up being a draw for many Polys.

After a fairly good inaugural year in the Pac-12, the past two seasons have been a struggle for Utah. Do you feel that the fans' patience may be running out and that only a bowl game appearance will appease the masses and secure Whittingham's job next year?

Swinney: Fans have less patience than ever, and that may be more true at Utah than anywhere else in the conference. They were so used to dominating opponents for years, and have not taken the losses well. This is new territory, especially for a fan base that is made up heavily of people under the age of 30. Whittingham has a longer leash at Utah than most probably know or believe. He'll likely be there until he's ready to leave for a few reasons: Whittingham has done great things for the program and been as important as anyone else in getting them into the Pac 12. Who else are you going to get? Utah isn't exactly a destination job. They're not going to find a better coach.

What are your keys to the game and score prediction?

Swinney: Utah has to get creative. They can't match up with ASU and hope to beat them straight up. It will take forced turnovers from the defense and some big plays on offense for them to win this thing. With how inconsistent they have been recently, I just can't see this going Utah's way. They'll keep it close because they always do at home, but Arizona State should win this in a game that isn't as close as the final score.

Sun Devils 30 Utes 24.

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