A primary storyline for Saturday's affair is the position of former Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson on Utah's staff as Co-Offensive Coordinator. After a year away from major college football, Erickson relocated to Salt Lake City to take his first college assistant coaching role since 1981.
Though masked by injuries and erratic quarterback play, Erickson has helped breathe new life into the Ute offense, specifically in terms of larger plays in downfield passing.
Sophomore Travis Wilson, a sizable dual-threat quarterback in his first full season as the Utes' starter, guides Utah's offensive attack. Highly athletic, Wilson has had moments of prowess and moments of struggle, as shown in his overall numbers of 1,706 passing yards on 58.8% passing with as many touchdowns (14) as interceptions. A major threat on the ground as well, Wilson has gained 342 net yards with a team-best five rushing touchdowns. Though banged up in recent weeks, Wilson is expected to enter Saturday healthy to face the Sun Devils.
In times Wilson has been sidelined, Adam Schulz has taken over under center. In total, Schulz has thrown for 247 yards with a 48.9% completion rate with one touchdown and one interception.
After workhorse John White IV exhausted his eligibility after last season, Utah was pressed to usher in a new go-to running back and found an above average one in James "Bubba" Poole. Poole has been Utah's most frequently used offensive skill player as he's carried a team-high 106 times for 495 yards and a score while he also ranks second on the team with 28 receptions for 227 yards.
Behind Poole, Lucky Radley is the next back in the stable with 37 carries for 236 yards and two scores and boasts a team-best 6.4-yards per carry average. Also used from time-to-time as a receiver, Radley has seven carries for 57 yards and one touchdown.
In the pass game, Utah has suffered numerous setbacks due to player injuries such as tight end Jake Murphy and wide receiver Kenneth Scott, the team's second and third-leading pass-catchers returning from 2012. The pair totaled 65 catches for 709 yards with seven scores last year.
Dres Anderson, Utah's leading receiver last year, has taken on a much greater role to fill the aforementioned offensive void and has recorded team-bests of 33 catches for 642 yards with five touchdowns. Boasting a team-high 19.5-yard average per reception, Anderson is not just Utah's most reliable receiver but also the team's most dangerous.
With injuries to not only Murphy but also Westlee Tonga, Utah has essentially decommissioned the tight end position from use in its offense.
From left-to-right, Utah's offensive line figures to start tackle Jeremiah Poutasi, guard Jeremiah Tofaeono, center Vyncent Jones, right guard Junior Salt and tackle Siaosi Aiono. The Ute line – specifically its tackles – has been heavily criticized of late.
Offense in a Nutshell
With players such as TE Jake Murphy and WR Kenneth Scott out due to injury, Utah has suffered from a lack of offensive playmakers outside Anderson and Poole. Wilson's high turnover rate certainly doesn't help matters, though having a few of his top targets leave the lineup can't help his accuracy.
The Utes will work to start off efficiently and move the ball in the early stages to create momentum and open options for Wilson to attack as a carrier as well. ASU undoubtedly will attack Wilson from the front seven to initiate turnover opportunities, so Utah's best chance at offensive success is to take advantage of an overzealously attacking Sun Devil front.
Utah's offense rates at a very mediocre level essentially across the statistical board on a national scale—with no key offensive team statistic ranked much higher than the top-50 to 60 nationally—while ASU's defense has surged the past three games. There isn't a true strength on the Utah offense—either in terms of individual or unit capabilities—but the most prominent point is for Wilson to play with control.
Utah's defense operates with three full-time defensive linemen, with a "Stud" linebacker – similar to ASU's "Devil" position – that also spends time on the line.
Up front, tackles Tenny Palepoi (33 tackles, 5.0 TFL's, 2.5 sacks) and LT Tuipulotu (27 tackles, 3.0 TFL's, 1.5 sacks) are joined by end Nate Orchard (34 tackles, 7.0 TFL's, 3.5 sacks), with Trevor Reilly occupying the "Stud" position.
The typical line trio has performed admirably, and Reilly has clearly been the team's top defender this season and is well on his way to all-conference honors as he leads the Utes in total tackles (69), TFL's (11.0), sacks (5.5) and fumble recoveries (three). An impact player in a similar mold of ASU's Carl Bradford, Reilly is one the Sun Devils undoubtedly will have to account for on every snap.
Elsewhere at linebacker, Jared Norris (63 tackles, 4.5 TFL's) starts at "Mac" and Jason Whittingham (45 tackles, 2.0 TFL's) at "Rover". V.J. Fehoko (18 tackles) and Jacoby Hale (16) are the key reserves at linebacker.
In the secondary, 6-foot-3 cornerback Keith McGill (24 tackles) likely will clash with Jaelen Strong, with Davion Orphey (23 tackles) lining up on the opposite site. Justin Thomas (eight tackles) and Reginald Porter (10 tackles) are slated as the top reserves at cornerback. Thomas also sees time at nickel back.
Eric Rowe (48 tackles) has been one of the team's top defenders since his freshman year and starts at free safety, with Michael Walker (49 tackles, 3.0 TFL's) as the first-team strong safety. Darchon Taggart and Charles Henderson (two tackles) are tagged as the Utes' backups at free and strong safety, respectively.
Mike Honeycutt earns ample action in a nickel role and is frequently used to charge the backfield as evidenced by his 2.0 tackles and 1.0 sack among 16 total stops on the year.
Defense in a Nutshell
Without a doubt, the most plausible path for Utah to remain highly competitive in this game is to pressure Taylor Kelly from numerous angles to the point of limited drives and/or turnovers.
The Utes rank third among FBS teams in sacks per game, but 95th in pass defense, making Utah very much a boom-or-bust defensive team.
Utah brings heat from a variety of angles, putting the onus of responsibility on not only the entire Sun Devil line but also backfield blockers. Kelly will also need to have his head on a swivel and make sound decisions in read-option opportunities.
If Kelly can evade or be protected from attacking Utes, the Devils' success ratio increases dramatically as ASU's quarterback has the acumen and targets to assault Utah's shoddy pass defense.
The dynamic potency of ASU's offense has been on parade in recent Pac-12 play, so if Utah is for some reason unable to maintain its high pressure backfield attack, the Sun Devils can gain marked advantages when on offense.
Special Teams Preview
Former U.S. National Ski Team member Andy Phillips handles placekicking duties for the Utes. A Lou Groza Award semifinalist similar to his counterpart at ASU in Zane Gonzalez, Phillips has converted on 13-of-16 field goals, though he has missed three of his last five attempts after starting the season a perfect 11-of-11. Phillips also kicks off for Utah.
Not to be outdone by Phillips in the "interesting back story" category, punter Tom Hackett came to Salt Lake City prior to last season after playing Australian rules football for Scotch College in Melbourne. On the season, Hackett averages 43.1 yards on 45 punts. Hackett leads the Pac-12 in gross punting and Utah as a team also tops the league in net punting average.
Delshawn McClellon (21.7 avg.) and Dres Anderson (20.0 avg.) are Utah's primary kick returners, with Geoff Norwood (9.8 avg.) on punt returns.
Keys to a Sun Devil Victory
An excellent if erratic athlete, Utah QB Travis Wilson is among the nation's most frequently intercepted quarterbacks and as a team, the Utes struggle mightily in the turnover margin department.
This home game for Utah will hinge largely on the home team's momentum and ability to maintain offensive drives while stopping those of the Sun Devils. If Wilson is not playing as accurately as he can, the Utes likely will suffer setbacks that will give an explosive Sun Devil offense enough chances to create a decisive advantage.
The Utes have an intriguing defensive dichotomy in that its pass rush is among the nation's elite while the pass defense barely ranks among the top-100 FBS units.
Utah has numerous candidates capable of entering the Sun Devil backfield, so ASU's protection schemes will have to account for multiple attackers—even coming from the secondary.
If Taylor Kelly and his protectors are able to fend off the initial wave of attack, opportunities figure to evolve in droves either in terms of downfield passing targets or lanes for Kelly to eat up yardage on the ground.
Utah has struggled against mobile quarterbacks such as Chuckie Keeton, Taysom Hill and Brett Hundley, and of late Kelly has made excellent decisions as a runner and can be expected to gear toward using those skills frequently Saturday.
However, Kelly has been known to make poor decisions at times when faced with an undaunted pass rush, so protection and balancing the play calls should be among the offense's main objectives against Utah.
Through ASU's amazing recent three-game stretch, the Devils have outstandingly scored at least 21 points in five of the six total first and second quarters against Colorado, Washington and Washington State.
Utah's margin for error at this point in the season isn't non-existent, but it certainly isn't large. That said, the Utes likely will hope to stir up the home crowd with quick strikes to catch the visitors off guard and create early momentum. ASU can surely quell that ambition with a first half effort anything similar to what has been seen in each of the last three games.
This game features two squads going different directions entering the final third of the regular season; ASU is hot off one of its most efficient three-game stretches in recent memory while the Utes are tip-toeing the line of bowl eligibility.
Utah has always been a team to get more with less in terms of its player personnel, but the athletes the Sun Devils have on both sides of the ball likely will create an insurmountable challenge for the Utes Saturday.
To the home team's credit, Utah plays very competitive football at Rice-Eccles Stadium—the Utes haven't lost a home contest by more than 10 points since ASU's last trip to Salt Lake City in October of 2011. That said, the game figures to remain more competitive in the first half than any of the past three early outbursts ASU has enjoyed. In all, however, the rolling Sun Devil offense has the firepower to surpass the talented Ute defense, while ASU will look to force Utah into momentum-altering turnovers.
Utah Co-Offensive Coordinator Dennis Erickson served as ASU's head coach from 2007-11.
Utah Defensive Graduate Assistant Kelly Talavou's brother Leo played at ASU in 2004 and '05.
Utah DT Sese Ianu attended Fountain Valley (Calif.) High School, as did ASU RB Kyle Middlebrooks.
Utah OL Hiva Luti, DT Sam Tevi, DT LT Tuipulotu and OT Salesi Uhatafe attended Euless (Texas) Trinity High School, as did ASU S Laiu Moeakiola.
Utah RB Lucky Radley attended Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft High School, as did ASU QB Mike Bercovici.
Utah OL Junior Salt attended Walnut (Calif.) Mt. San Antonio College, as did ASU WR Alonzo Agwuenu.
Utah DB/LB Clarence Smith is an Arizona native and graduate of Buckeye's Youngker High School.
Utah RB Dre'Vian Young attended Houston (Texas) Nimitz High School, as did ASU RB Marion Grice.