Due in large part to its ability to dominate the line of scrimmage, Arizona State's stout run defense was able to turn Colorado into a one-dimensional offensive threat last Saturday. Gaining a mere 49 yards in the running game, the Buffaloes struggled to find any rhythm as ASU had 12 tackles for loss and eight sacks on the night.
But last week’s showing wasn’t the first time ASU has stifled its opponents’ stand out running back this season. In ASU’s 42-14 loss to USC, the Sun Devils held the Trojans’ senior tailback Tre Madden to seven yards on nine carries. Against UCLA, junior running back Paul Perkins had 18 carries and 63 yards. Before playing the Sun Devils, Madden averaged 68.7 rushing yards per game and Perkins averaged 128.5.
Now facing No. 4 Utah on Saturday, the Sun Devils will have to go up against another high-caliber running back in Utes’ sophomore Devontae Booker — a player ASU head coach Todd Graham described as one of the best backs in the league.
“Defense is obviously the key,” Graham said on Monday. “The team that can run the football is the one that will have the advantage. So they've got a pretty good running attack, really good running attack.”
Utah relies so heavily on Booker that he has 140 carries through five games this season, an average of 28 carries per game. His 140 carries on the season are 35 more than the next closest player who has played five games in the Pac-12, a differential of seven carries per game. Oregon’s Royce Freeman, has 123 carries through six games, a rate of 20.5 per game.
However, while Booker is averaging 133 rushing yards per game, he averages only 4.8 yards per carry – the lowest average of the top 12 rushers in the league. If the Sun Devils can contain Booker like they did with USC, UCLA, and Colorado’s running backs, ASU could likely shut down Utah’s run game all together since he's responsible for so much of its success.
“He (Booker) is a powered, downhill runner, makes a lot of his yards straight ahead and cutting it back,” Graham said. “So the challenge is like it is every week. But more so with this week because I think their offensive line is really good. I think their offensive line is blocking really well and that coupled with a great back like Booker is a big challenge.”
While there’s not one specific Utes’ lineman who stands out, four out of the five starting linemen for Utah started in all 13 games last season and bring experience and reliability to the table.
This season, Utah is No. 2 in the country for sacks allowed with two through five games. In the past two meetings between ASU and Utah, ASU sacked Utah senior quarterback Travis Wilson three times in 2013 and four times in 2014. Utah's soundness with its blocking and protections on the offensive front will potentially test ASU's aggressive approach.
“I think they’re a good offensive line,” ASU defensive line coach Jackie Shipp said. “They play together as a unit and they play hard. I think they’re tough and physical and you have to play a very tough and physical game against them.”
Utah's improved execution at the point of attack, in terms of opening holes for Booker and preventing defenses from getting to Wilson, could present as a major challenge for ASU and even lead to the Sun Devils' pressure-heavy approach backfiring. ASU has had a heavy reliance on solo tackles, with junior linebacker Salamo Fiso, senior safety Jordan Simone and sophomore linebacker Christian Sam the top three players in the Pac-12 in solo tackles.
If someone misses an attempt to bring down Booker or the 6-foot-7, 233 pound Wilson, it could result in explosive plays for the Utes' offense, especially because Wilson has the mobility – and vision – to make smart, decisive plays when being pressured and forced out of the pocket. In the past two years, Wilson rushed for over 70 yards in each of the Utes’ two meetings against ASU after taking away the negative yardage for sacks.
“He (Wilson) can run the game,” Shipp said. “We have to tackle him. He’s a big, tall guy that does a good job running the ball. Can scramble out of the pocket too. Still have to contain him on the rush and gang tackle him and get him down.”
To a lesser extent, but similar to how Utah relies on its run game, ASU will have to establish the run early if it wants to have good odds to upset Utah in Salt Lake City. Like the Sun Devils, Utah has a strong run defense, the No. 3-ranked rush defense in the Pac-12.
However, the Utes' No. 3 ranking is a little misleading. While they have allowed just 133.2 rushing yards per game, they rank No. 6 in rushing yards per carry with 4.2. In contrast, ASU's run defense has allowed 3.3 yards per carry, good for No. 4 in the Pac-12.
Numbers aside, the Utes’ run defense will be no push over. The Sun Devils struggled to establish the run against a lowly Colorado defense last week and this Saturday, ASU could be without a healthy Demario Richard ASU’s sophomore starting running back left the Colorado game on crutches and was seen Tuesday wearing a right knee brace. He didn't participate in individual or team periods media were able to observe, but Graham said on Monday he would be good to go against Utah.
In addition to Richard, senior offensive guard Christian Westerman and senior offensive guard Vi Teofilo were held out of team periods media were able to observe on Tuesday. Teofilo is coming off a torn ACL last year and ASU has monitored his practice reps this season, and Westerman appears to have some type of injury to his right hand/ fingers.
ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said each of his players on the offensive line “pretty much all have something,” ailing them, but that Utah is the exact same way. Playing despite the injuries, ASU will have to still dominate the line of scrimmage if it has any chance of creating lanes for its running backs.
“You always want to win the line of scrimmage, but you want to make sure when you’re coming off the ball, you’re staying low, you’re driving your feet, and moving your feet.” ASU center Nick Kelly said. “It’s about the person who gives the most effort.”
Especially playing on the road, in a hostile environment, and against a Top-5 ranked team in the country, ASU can’t afford to have a lackadaisical showing or endure any self-inflicted wounds.
In the team’s post-practice huddle on Tuesday, Graham was heard yelling at his players to bring more energy to practice and play harder because in his words, mere talent isn’t enough to beat Utah on Saturday.
But, one thing that can help will be establishing the run and setting the pace of the game. Thomsen called this week’s game against Utah “our biggest test since our first game,” but his group and offense as a whole has made visible strides.
“It’s important every week, but on the road when you’ve got crowd noise and things like that, it defensively helps to establish the run,” Thomsen said. “Easier said than done. Those guys got a great run defense really strong front seven group from the down line to the line backing corps. Best linebackers corps I’ve seen. Best overall (defensive) line I’ve seen as far as run, pass, everything so it’s a huge challenge, but that’s what we have to do.”