If Arizona State is hoping to keep pace in the race for the Pac-12 South, the Sun Devils will have to make history on Saturday night. Traveling to Salt Lake City, ASU will take on the No. 4 Utah Utes in search of the program’s first ever victory over an Associated Press top-five opponent on the road.
It’s been nearly 20 years since ASU upset No. 1 Nebraska at Sun Devil Stadium, which marks the school’s last victory over a top-five team.
Even without history on its side, there’s more than a glimmer of hope for the Sun Devils, who already own a road victory over then-No. 7 UCLA this season. ASU has also won its last 11 meetings against the Utes, dating back to 1977.
In the past two seasons, though, Utah has taken ASU down to the wire. In 2013, the Sun Devils trailed by 12 points entering the fourth quarter, and used a pair of late touchdowns to overcome the Utes. Last season, Utah took ASU to overtime before reliable Utes kicker Andy Phillips missed a field goal and junior Zane Gonzalez connected on a game-winning kick to keep the Sun Devils’ streak alive.
Though ASU has consistently finished ahead of Utah since the Utes joined the Pac-12, redshirt senior wide receiver Gary Chambers said there are plenty of parallels between the two programs and he believes that’s why the past two results have been so tight.
“Their program is a lot like ours, they’re a disciplined group, they have relentless effort and I think we believe in a lot of the same things so it’s a really good matchup,” Chambers said.
Despite never finishing higher than fourth in the Pac-12 South, the Utes have defended their home turf well, notching important victories over Stanford, USC and Michigan at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the past three seasons.
While the stadium’s seating capacity of 47,014 makes it one of the Pac-12’s smaller venues, the Sun Devils anticipate a packed house, a hostile environment, and a loud crowd that should make communication more challenging.
ASU’s victory over UCLA came in front of more than 80,000 fans at the Rose Bowl, and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said the Sun Devils have to rely on the experience they’ve garnered in road games to ensure every player is on the same page.
“Going to Utah, I think it’s one of the top venues in the Pac-12 when it comes to crowd noise and the atmosphere,” Norvell said. “Being able to have a prime-time game, I know they’re going to be jacked up, but we’ve been in those games and we’ve been in those situations and now it’s just time to go play.”
The Sun Devils faced significant struggles against Texas A&M in their season-opener at NRG Stadium in Houston. Though the game was technically considered a neutral-site contest, the overwhelmingly pro-Aggie crowd forced ASU into using a silent snap count.
Texas A&M defensive ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall led the charge as the Aggies routinely timed up ASU’s snap count to the tune of nine sacks. The Sun Devils shored up the issue against UCLA, but senior wide receiver D.J. Foster has spent the week reminding the ASU offense of what to expect when they travel to enemy territory.
“It’s a tough place to play, that’s what I’m communicating to a lot of the younger guys that haven’t been up there and it’s definitely a hostile environment so we have to go up and play four quarters,” Foster said.
In past seasons, Utah’s defense adopted the moniker “Sack Lake City,” as the Utes racked up a conference-high 55 sacks a season ago. This year, a more apt nickname for the defense might be “Pick Lake City,” thanks to the 12 interceptions the Utes’ have reeled in through five games.
Utah’s plus-2.0 per game turnover margin is tied for first nationally, and the opportunistic bunch is a primary reason the Utes’ record remains unblemished. Even though ASU preaches the importance of ball security every week, sophomore running back Kalen Ballage said the Sun Devils have taken note of the way Utah hunts after the football and are focused on mitigating the Utes’ ability to create turnovers.
“I mean, there is, but I think it’s (ball security) something you should always be thinking about anyway so that when you come into a game like this, you’re not surprised because they have a lot of turnovers,” Ballage said.
While Utah’s sack totals are down this season compared to last year, the Utes still rank second in the Pac-12 in total defense thanks to the play of an aggressive front seven.
In analyzing the Utes’ defense, ASU’s coaches and players were reluctant to single out specific players, but instead highlighted the way the Utes’ swarmed to the ball as a unit. Led by leading tackler and senior linebacker Gionni Paul Utah’s aggressiveness in pursuing ball carriers has kept opposing rushing attacks in check and jumps out on film.
“I’ve watched all of their games so far this season, and they play fast, they play smart, they play tough, and they play together,” Ballage said. “We’re just going to have to match that and actually exceed that.”
ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said the key to neutralizing Utah’s aggressiveness is making positive plays in the run game on first and second down.
Under head coach Kyle Whittingham, the Utes have been at their best when speed rushers can come off the edge and attack the quarterback in third and medium or third and long situations, and against a team leading the nation in turnover margin, ASU is emphasizing the importance of maintaining manageable down and distances.
“You can’t let them force you into a bunch of third and longs and that goes back to being able to run the ball and getting in more short and manageable situations because they get you in third and out and get that crowd noise going and get that rush, the pass rush then they will force you into some bad plays like they did last week and that’s what they want to do and that’s what they’re good at it,” Thomsen said.
Despite suffering losses, Utah has held ASU to its lowest point total of the year in each of the past two seasons. The Utes limited the Sun Devils to a single touchdown through the first three quarters the last time the teams met in Salt Lake City, and Norvell said Utah’s defense commands the respect of opposing coordinators.
Nevertheless, with its offense finally on track after a slow start to the season, ASU has a chance to make a statement against a hyper-aggressive unit that has feasted on its opponents’ mistakes thus far.
“Just like every year, it’s probably one of the teams in this league I’ve got the most respect for,” Norvell said. “When you turn on the film, every week they’re going to come play, and very aggressive. Aggressive in their style, aggressive in their nature, and this is one of my favorite games to be apart of.”
The Devontae Booker Show
Through the first five games of his 2015 season, senior running back Devontae Booker has redefined the meaning of a “workhorse running back.” Booker has single-handedly kept the Utes offense afloat at times this year, but that’s exactly what Utah’s coaching staff has asked of him.
The 5-foot-11, 212-pound back has already accumulated 140 carries this year, an average of 28 per game. And when he’s not taking handoffs, Booker is typically running patterns out of the backfield, as he doubles as Utah’s leading receiver with 19 catches and 194 yards.
Even though Booker finished second on his team in receptions with 43 last year, ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said Utah is even more intent on using the all-purpose threat as a receiver this season.
“The biggest difference in Booker this year compared to last year is they’re throwing the ball to him quickly out of the backfield so when he catches the ball out in space, now you’ve got issues,” Patterson said. “You’ve got to make sure you gang tackle, swarm tackle him, and that’s the biggest difference I see in their team.”
Booker runs with a physical, punishing style and has proven game-after-game he isn’t afraid of contact in between the tackles. For a defense like ASU’s that relies heavily on individual players making solo tackles, the matchup against Booker figures to be its toughest test yet.
Sophomore SAM linebacker Christian Sam is third on the Sun Devils with 47 tackles as well as third in the Pac-12 in solo tackles with 31, and will need to have a fundamentally sound performance if ASU hopes to slow down Utah’s rushing attack.
When asked about Booker, Sam offered high praise for the senior ball carrier based on what he’s seen on film.
“He runs hard, he’s not going down,” Sam said. “You really have to hit him, you have to tackle him, he’s a good back.”
Booker ranks second in the conference with 133.0 yards per game on the ground, but Utah’s reliance on its feature back has made its play-calling somewhat predictable. Of the top 12 rushers in the Pac-12, Booker is the only player averaging fewer than 5.0 yards per carry (4.8).
One way the Utes try to combat their opponents’ ability to key in on Booker is capitalizing on the natural running skills of senior quarterback Travis Wilson, whose 62.3 rushing yards per game is second only to Oregon State’s Seth Collins in terms of Pac-12 quarterbacks, and Wilson’s improvements in the zone-read have helped Utah control the football and move the chains with a two-headed approach in the backfield.
In its first three conference games, ASU has limited its opponents below 2.8 yards per carry, and its goal is to make every opponent one-dimensional. Still, the Sun Devils haven’t played a team as intent on establishing the run as the Utes, which makes the battle at the line of scrimmage early in the game all the more important.
“It starts with those two guys, you have to stop the run with No. 7 (Wilson) and No. 23 (Booker),” Patterson said. “Then once you do that, you have to stay sound vertically and don’t let people get behind you, and then tackle well out on the perimeter of the defense when they throw the ball quick.”
When Wilson does drop back to pass, he possesses an above-average ability to elude pass rushers and get the ball out of his hands quickly. Utah is tied for third nationally with just two sacks allowed, and Wilson’s improved pocket presence combined with a quick-hitting passing approach has helped Utah neutralize pass rushers.
Redshirt junior Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola indicated Wilson’s dual-threat capabilities will require all 11 defensive players to stay on the same page, because if a play breaks down, Wilson has the ability to make defenses pay with his arm and his feet.
“You just have to treat him (Wilson) like a run-threat quarterback,” Moeakiola said. “You can’t sleep on him, it takes a lot. Your D-Line has to have integrity in their pass rush, knowing that he can’t get outside of you, that just adds another element to their offense that makes them even better.”
The Sun Devils’ goal is to make Wilson beat them through the air on Saturday night. The fourth-year starter has just 686 passing yards this season, which ranks No. 108 nationally.
Wilson has significantly improved his ball security since throwing 16 interceptions as a sophomore, but last week, the California defense snagged two picks in Utah’s 30-24 win.
ASU senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington has a lot of respect for Wilson’s play making capabilities, but he believes the Sun Devil coaching staff has developed a game plan that will take advantage of Utah’s weaknesses.
“He’s (Wilson) a talented guy, he does a good job of being a dual-threat,” Carrington said. “He’s a guy who makes plays when he’s in the right position, he’s a smart guy and he understands what defenses want to do. So our main thing is to know that and continue to go with our game plan and what we’re good at.”
How can a defense that relies so heavily on its ability to generate pressure scheme against an opponent that rarely gives up sacks? According to Patterson, sacks and tackles for loss aren’t the only indicators of a successful defensive output.
Against a team that gets the ball out of its quarterbacks hands fast with short drops and replacement run plays, Patterson is hoping his defense can disrupt Wilson’s timing and move him off his landmarks when he sets up to pass.
“It might be not allowing him (Wilson) to throw on timing, it might be making him move his feet off that spot, but if you let him get in a rhythm where they’re taking the run, throwing the ball to the perimeter, now you’ve got a problem,” Patterson said.
After recording three sacks against the Utes in 2013 and racking up four last season, ASU has a strong track record of impacting Wilson. With the coaches and players on both sides becoming familiar with one another over the past few years, Moeakiola said the knowledge the Sun Devils have gained should play out in how ASU plans to attack the Utes.
“We’re just familiar with their technique, their speed, they’re guys that we played last year,” Moeakiola said. “So we’re seeing the same faces, it’s knowing what they’re good at, and what we can utilize as a defense.”
After back-to-back wins, the Sun Devils feel as if they have their swagger back. But up in Salt Lake City, the 5-0 Utes finally believe they’ve found themselves.
On Saturday night, both teams will look to make history. For Utah, it has a chance to knock off the Sun Devils for the first time since joining the Pac-12, while for ASU, the contest affords the program the opportunity to take down an AP top-five opponent for the first time ever on the road.
There’s so much at stake on both sides, but after all, that’s how every Pac-12 South divisional game feels for teams with conference championship aspirations.