Utah Preview

Based on its pre-season predictions, some may call Arizona State one the biggest surprises of the 2014 Pac-12 South. Yet, when you look at Utah and their current 6-1 record, you’d probably be hard pressed to find a school in this division that has shocked more pundits to date than the Utes have. What can the Sun Devils expect in their homecoming contest? Joe Healey Examines ASU’s Next Opponent.

Utah’s Offensive Personnel

A feel-good story any fan can appreciate, earlier this calendar year it was uncertain whether Utah quarterback Travis Wilson would be able to continue his playing career after injuries he sustained, yet fast forward to the fall and he’s calling the shots for a nationally-ranked team in the thick of the chase for a division title.

On the field, Wilson has impressive athletic attributes, beginning with his 6-foot-7 frame that is complemented with some solid athleticism in a similar mold as what ASU had with Brock Osweiler.

Incredibly prone to turning the ball over earlier in his career, Wilson entered 2014 with 22 interceptions in 21 career games but has drastically improved his ball control to the point of an 8-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Wilson and the Utah offense, however, has adopted a more conservative pass approach, as the Utes have the fewest pass attempts (194) in the Pac-12 Conference.

In total, Wilson has completed 56.6% of his passes for 1,027 yards with the eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. Wilson also ranks fourth on the team with 105 net rushing yards.

Wilson might enter Tempe with a bit of revenge on his mind, as two interceptions he threw doomed the Utes against the Devils last year, while an injury he suffered that game against Arizona State caused him to miss the remainder of the 2013 season.

Utah has also given former Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson numerous opportunities at quarterback, with Thompson giving the Utes an athletic presence behind center as he ranks second on the squad with 164 rush yards. Thompson, however, hasn’t displayed the ball control Wilson has as he has an equal total of touchdown passes and interceptions (two).

Seemingly out of nowhere, Devontae Booker has exploded into one of the most dynamic backs in the Pac-12 Conference, thanks to the absolute tear he has been on since being thrust to the forefront of the Utah offense to begin league play.

In four Pac-12 games, Booker averages over 166 rushing yards per game and on the season the former JUCO transfer has totaled 844 rushing yards with eight touchdowns on an average of 5.8 yards per carry. A physical straight-ahead runner, Booker doesn’t try to shock you east-and-west fanciness, but rather runs through, over and beyond defenders with relative ease.

A general small factor in the pass game, Booker has 11 catches for 95 yards but one was taken 61 yards, an example of the game-breaking skills he gives the Utes.

Booker presents perhaps the most significant individual threat on the Utah roster, as the league’s better backs such as USC’s Buck Allen and UCLA’s Paul Perkins have rushed with ease through the Arizona State defense.

Behind Booker, Bubba Poole returns after seeing substantial action in 2013, but with Booker’s emergence Poole has had his role decisively diminished. In all, Poole has carried 38 times for 160 yards with one touchdown.

In the pass game, Utah recently was struck with the unfortunate news of losing standout receiver Dres Anderson for the remainder of the season, a marked disadvantage entering Saturday’s contest. A 1,000-yard receiver in 2013, Anderson’s numbers were not up to the same par so far in 2014 but still Anderson stands as the team leader in receiving yards (355) and touchdown catches (four) while ranking second on the team with 25 receptions. Anderson had a standout day against ASU last year in Salt Lake City, recording a triple-digit performance against the Sun Devils.

In Anderson’s absence, veteran Kenneth Scott takes control as the top wide receiver target. The team’s leader with 25 receptions, Scott also has 252 receiving yards and three touchdown catches to his credit this year, both second on the Utes behind Anderson.

Elsewhere at wide receiver, special teams dynamo Kaelin Clay (16-152-1) figures to see an expanded role, as might fellow receiver Tim Patrick.

Tight end Westlee Tonga has been a stable target for Utah passers this season as he has totaled 15 receptions for 178 yards with one touchdown.

Up front, Utah is slated to start tackle Jeremiah Poutasi and guard Junior Salt on the left side with guard Isaac Asiata and Phoenix product J.J. Dielman at tackle on the right side. Of the group, all but Salt has started all seven games thus far in 2014.

Siaosi Aiono has started the last six games at center but his availability is uncertain. If Aiono is out of action, Hiva Lutui figures to start in his place.

Utah’s Offensive Summary

Booker, Booker, Booker. And then Booker, with more Booker, capped off with some Booker.

Utah makes no mistake about its offensive direction—only 15 FBS teams have attempted fewer passes than the Utes this season.

Booker will be fed the ball in an all-he-can-eat fashion, plausibly surpassing 30 carries against the Devils.

With the injury of Anderson at receiver, Kenneth Scott is the clear number one option at the position, with tight end Westlee Tonga as a very viable candidate to catch passes as well. A wild card could prove to be Kaelin Clay, arguably the nation’s most devastating special teams returner this year but also a qualified target in the pass game.

ASU can be expected to load up in attempts to slow Booker down in the run game and push Wilson into uncomfortable passing scenarios. However, if the Utes are able to eat up yardage with Booker on the ground, Wilson can find openings in the air when they exist. In general, this certainly means fans can expect to see more of the defensive look ASU has given the last two games with the likes of Demetrius Cherry and Mo Latu earning substantial game reps.

The jury is still generally out on the Sun Devil run defense; though overall defensive improvements have been clear the past two games, some weaknesses were still exploited at Washington that can be harmful to the Devils’ health versus Utah on Saturday.

Utah’s Defensive Personnel

Washington’s defensive front with Hau’oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton was big, physical, athletic, and tenacious and forced its way into the Sun Devil backfield last weekend in Seattle.

Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, ASU faces a similar caliber of foe in the Utah defense, the number one team in the FBS in sacks, headlined by ends Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick.

Last week, Arizona State simply had no answer for Kikaha’s pass rush and, again, unfortunately a similar threat will visit Tempe this Saturday as Orchard ranks second in the nation behind Kikaha with 11.0 sacks on the year. Not far behind Orchard is Dimick, tied for seventh in the nation with 7.0 quarterback sacks.

In addition to the sacks, Orchard, trending toward a First-Team All-Pac-12 selection, is tied for second on the team with 45 total tackles and leads the Utes with 13.5 tackles for loss. Dimick has tallied 31 total tackles including 8.5 for loss.

Behind Orchard at right end, Pita Taumoepenu has performed admirably in a reserve role as he has provided 3.5 sacks among his 12 total tackles on the year.

At defensive tackle, Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei, a pair of freshmen, are slated to start for the Utes. On the year, Lotulelei has totaled 14 tackles including 1.5 for loss, while Mokofisi has chipped in 11 tackles with 2.5 for loss.

If the Lotulelei name sounds familiar, it should, as Lowell is the younger brother of former Utah all-everything defensive lineman Star Lotulelei.

Sese Ianu also contributes on the defensive line and has 13 tackles with 1.0 for loss this year.

Utah has seen widespread shuffling of the starting lineup at defensive tackle, as through seven games, six players have started at least one game at the position.

At linebacker, one-time Arizona State commit and former Miami Hurricane Gionni Paul has emerged into an honors candidate and dynamic playmaker at “Mac” linebacker for the Utes. Despite missing two games to begin the year, Paul is tied for second on the team with 45 total tackles, adding a team-high three interceptions.

Team-leading tackler Jared Norris is slated to start at “Rover” linebacker, though injury concerns exist for him. On the year, Norris has totaled 67 tackles including 9.5 for loss with four sacks.

At “Stud” linebacker, Jason Fanaika, also a defensive lineman, is slated as the starter for this week’s game. Through seven games in 2014, Fanaika has collected 28 total tackles, including 5.5 for loss with 3.0 sacks. Fanaika is also listed as the number two left end behind Dimick on this week’s depth chart.

In the secondary, tenured defender Eric Rowe is scheduled to start opposite Dominique Hatfield. Rowe currently ranks fourth on the team with 35 tackles and has a team-high seven pass breakups. Hatfield has registered 26 tackles with four pass breakups on the year.

Nickel back Justin Thomas also sees extensive action and has 18 tackles including 3.0 for loss with three pass breakups in 2014.

At safety, Tevin Carter is listed as the top option at free safety with Brian Blechen, a player who seemingly has been in Salt Lake City since the Urban Meyer days, poised to start at strong safety. Carter has only appeared in four games but ranks second on the team with two interceptions in addition to his 16 total tackles. Blechen has tallied a total of 32 tackles with four pass breakups on the year.

Utah’s Defensive Summary

Using Orchard, Dimick and others, Utah will try its damnedest to get in the Sun Devil backfield and painfully pressure ASU’s quarterback. The Sun Devil line has been highly susceptible to stout pass rush attacks of late, as evidenced by the high sack totals Stanford and Washington achieved against the Devils. Injury has also been added to these insults, as left guard Christian Westerman is expected to miss Saturday’s action due to injury and is likely to be replaced by first-time starter Stephon McCray.

If the Devils can keep the Utes at bay, options exist in the secondary as Utah has suffered a handful of defensive back injuries and overall have holes ASU can attack as Utah ranks 98th in the nation by allowing about 265 passing yards per game.

The Sun Devil offensive line will undoubtedly face one of its toughest tasks of the year this Saturday in trying to keep Taylor Kelly clean while also paving openings for the hopeful improvement in the run game for Arizona State.

Utah’s Special Teams’ Summary

You can travel coast-to-coast in the world of college football—yes, even including the SEC!—and be hard-pressed to find a better overall group of special teams units than what is offered by the Utes.

Kicking, punting, returns— it’s all deadly—as the Utes bring the best in the Pac-12 and some of the greatest in college football to the table in Tempe.

His one last chance at the major college level, Kaelin Clay is making it count and then some as he is well on his way to All-America accolades thanks to his sensational presence on special teams. A former Cal signee, Clay then went the JUCO route and came to Salt Lake City this spring with just the one year of eligibility to play.

Thankfully for Clay, that year has already been worth Utah’s scholarship as he ranks third in the nation and leads the Pac-12 with a 22.5-yard average on punt returns, leading the FBS with three punt return touchdowns. Also incredible on kick returns, Clay averages 29.4 yards with one touchdown. Though he doesn’t have enough attempts to qualify for league or national rankings, his average would rank ninth in the FBS if he were eligible. In all, with the challenges ASU had earlier in the season against the likes of Ishmael Adams and Nelson Agholor on returns, Clay is even more dangerous and requires all of ASU’s special teams attention.

In the kick game, the Utes’ Andy Phillips is one of the most accurate in America as he has connected on 14-of-16 field goals, making his 87.5% success rate tops in the Pac-12. Phillips also ranks 14th in the nation in field goal accuracy, but his quantity of kicks makes him additionally impressive as his is the most accurate rate of any kicker in the nation with 15 or more field goal attempts.

Lastly but as important as the other specialist, punter Tom Hackett is simply an invaluable weapon in the Utes’ holster. Hackett made his way to Salt Lake City from Australia, and with a 47.0-yard average on 44 punts, Hackett is tied for third in the nation (by merely an average of one yard per punt) while also tying Arizona’s Drew Riggleman for tops in the Pac-12 Conference. With a stingy Ute defense but a low-scoring offense, Hackett’s presence and ability to flip fields on opponents has been a crucial catalyst to the Utes’ 6-1 start.

Final Analysis

Of all the games circled by Sun Devil fans on the schedule prior to the season, the Utah game maybe ranked somewhere around the sixth or seventh most anticipated. Boy what a difference two months can make, as here, seven games into the year, the Devils and Utes start the month of November with an absolutely pivotal game in what has become a cutthroat competition for Pac-12 South dominance.

ASU has had perfect success against Utah since the conference expanded to 12 teams in 2011—a fact that surely irks the Ute faithful and has created a palpable disdain from Salt Lake City to Tempe.

A 5-7 team the past two years, many began to believe that Utah didn’t have the athleticism or overall talent to compete at the level in the Pac-12 Conference as it did as a BCS “buster” in years before. However, the stars have aligned thus far for Utah and long-time head coach Kyle Whittingham and the Utes are clearly enjoying their greatest success since joining the Pac-12 Conference.

The importance of this game cannot be overstated as the loser falls to the dreaded two-loss mark in conference play—a standing that for the time being keeps teams out of the divisional race.

Utah’s has been a wild ride thus far in 2014—especially in conference play—as the Utes’ four league games thus far have been determined by a grand total of 12 points.

Saturday brings a challenge similar to what each of the past two games have presented ASU in terms of a dominant defense but an offense with limited firepower. Utah’s ability to harass quarterbacks makes pass protection imperative to the Sun Devils, especially off the edges where Ute defensive ends Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick have routinely punished offensive tackles this year.

With the presence of a sensational rusher in Devontae Booker, the absence of veteran receiver Dres Anderson and an overall timid pass game, ASU undoubtedly will try to limit Booker as best as possible and hope to force quarterback Travis Wilson to take greater responsibility in this game than he has most of the year.

Special teams could prove to be priceless in this game; Utah has no reservation with a bend-but-don’t-break approach on offense while using its persistent defense to allow its special teams units to give the Utes the overall edge in ballgames.

In all, the winner of this game gives itself a firm advantage in the Pac-12 south, and depending on the outcome of Arizona’s game against UCLA, perhaps at the end of the night the victor will stand alone as the sole one-loss team in the division.

Protect the quarterback, limit the run, don’t allow Clay to run wild on returns. Seemingly a solid blueprint to a huge Sun Devil victory, but certainly much more easily said (or typed) than done.

Familiar Faces

• Utah running backs coach Dennis Erickson was head coach at ASU from 2007-11

• Utah LB Gionni Paul was verbally committed to Arizona State for its 2011 signing class prior to signing with Miami (Fla.), where he attended before transferring to Utah.

• Utah LB Aaron Borg is an Arizona native and attended Scottsdale’s Saguaro High School, as did ASU RB D.J. Foster

• Utah OL J.J. Dielman is an Arizona native and attended Phoenix Desert Vista High School, as did ASU LB Marcus Washington

• Utah DE Clarence Smith is an Arizona native and attended Buckeye Youngker High School

• Utah SN Michael Welsh is an Arizona native and attended Peoria Liberty High School

• Utah TE Tyler Bell attended Fountain Valley (Calif.) High School, as did ASU RB Kyle Middlebrooks

• Utah OL Hiva Lutui and OL Salesi Uhatafe attended Euless (Texas) Trinity High School, as did ASU LB Laiu Moeakiola

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