Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

ASU players, coaches evaluate Utah

Arizona State coaches and players offered their thoughts on a Utah team that leads the Pac-12 in takeaways and ranks third in rushing offense.

Arizona State will have a change of pace this week as it plays on a Thursday night against run-oriented No. 16 Utah.

Utah, 7-2 overall, 4-2 in the Pac-12, will come to Sun Devil Stadium on Thursday in third place in the Pac-12 South behind USC and Colorado.

For ASU sophomore defensive lineman Joseph Wicker, he’s more than excited to play against a Utah squad that bases its offense around its run game –- a team quality ASU has rarely faced this season with so many Pac-12 teams using an Air Raid or pass-heavy offensive scheme.

“We are looking forward to playing against this team,” Wicker said. “This is what we live for right here. This is what we really practiced for right here. We don’t practice all this passing team stuff because I didn’t even know, last year we didn’t play against a team like that and then they just started doing it, well not just started, but they just really, everyone started to do it now and it’s annoying, but it’s part of the game.”

ASU has played multiple Air Raid teams so far this season in Texas Tech, Cal, and Washington State.

Wicker specifically cited ASU’s game against Texas Tech when quarterback Patrick Mahomes led his team down the field for a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to end the first half as a “frustrating” scenario for pass rushers and the defense as a whole. All the plays in the drive were passing plays.  

“You remember the drive, Texas Tech like before we went to halftime and they scored?” Wicker said. “That’s the most frustrating, that’s the most frustrating thing for a D-lineman because they are sitting there throwing two-yard routes and we are trying to rush and they are just throwing it and what, we can just stay back here and try to bat the ball or something.”

A contributing factor as to why ASU has the worst passing yards allowed average in the nation (397.6) is due to the multiple Air Raid teams the Sun Devils have faced. Not only can those teams attack through the air, but they often times do it at an up-tempo pace. Just the tempo offense alone was a clear problem during ASU’s 40-16 loss to Colorado at Folsom Field.

“If you think about it, if teams are passing the ball 80 percent of the time you are going to be exhausted because think about it, if you do three pass rushes in a row and they are in tempo you are exhausted and throwing it fast too, you can’t rush,” Wicker said. “You got to run the ball, it’s just hard. We do it, but it’s just hard. Especially this year, basically all our first four games.”

This week, ASU’s defense will get its shot against Utah’s strong run game behind the once-retired legs of running back Joe Williams.

Williams, who left the team in September because his body felt worn out, came back at the request of head coach Kyle Whittingham after a slew of Utah injuries at running back.

Since coming out of retirement three games ago, Williams has rushed for 683 yards, an average of 227.7 yards per game. Through the five games Williams has played in this season, he has 120 carries for 758 yards and six touchdowns.

“They run the football,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “This team is a power running football team. Want to bloody your nose. They are a physical team.”

Graham said specifically Utah’s offensive and defensive lines “anchor” the Utes.

“I think they have a real physical line,” junior safety Marcus Ball said. “I think they run behind their line and they trust those guys up front and have a real physical line and it gives them the ability to run the ball. Our game plan is to always make a team be one-dimensional. Obviously if we take away the run and make this guy throw the ball, that’s the plan and that’s something we are going to do.”

Utah junior offensive lineman Garett Bolles anchors the offensive line in his first season at Utah as a junior college transfer. Bolles was rated as teh No. 1 junior college prospect in the nation by, which also rated him as a five-star player.

At 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, Bolles transferred from Snow College, where he was a NJCAA first team All-American in 2015.

Wicker said the big physical frame of Bolles may seem to be an advantage, but Wicker also said for pass rushers, the bigger the offensive lineman, the better.

“If you are 6-foot-6 we are going to get leverage on you because I’m 6-foot-3, so you’re three inches taller than me, I’m getting leverage on you,” Wicker said.

Utah senior offensive lineman Sam Tevi, 6-foot-6, 305 pounds, holds down the right side playing his first year starting at right tackle after starting on the offensive line last year. Prior to that, Tevi played defensive tackle as a freshman before making the switch to offense in 2014.

“They are very disciplined,” senior defensive lineman Tramel Topps said. “Like our program they shape their program around being disciplined. They are very physical, they are a physical program. We know we have to be physical and out-physical them and be more disciplined to win this game and we will.”

In addition to a strong run game, Utah has a new quarterback this season after the departure of former Utah quarterback Travis Wilson.

Utah junior quarterback Troy Williams leads the Utes in his first season in a Utah uniform, after transferring from Santa Monica College. Prior to junior college, Williams was with Washington, playing in five games with one start in 2014.

“He’s a pretty good quarterback and from what we’ve seen on film thus far, he does a great job running the ball and passing the ball and they run a little bit of option and this guy is obviously a dual-threat guy,” Ball said. “Nothing we haven’t seen before. We’ve seen it on all phases.”

Troy Williams is 142-for-260 passing for 1,888 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions on the season. 

“Quarterback is really good, very mobile,” Graham said. “Can really throw the deep ball well. We got to do a good job. The receiving corps are 6-4, 6-5 guys and they throw the ball vertically down the field. Lot of run pass, RPO stuff.”

ASU defensive line coach Joe Seumalo said in line with Utah’s RPOs (run-pass options), the Utes do such a good job running the ball that it makes it “a little bit of a challenge to transition and switch over to the pass rush.”

“We’ve watched a ton of film and they are a team that is actually a well-coached, discipline team,” Ball said. “A lot like ourselves and they are going to be running that ball downhill. A really tough team and they pride themselves in running the ball. Got some real talented backs, good playmakers.”

In the receiving corps, senior wide receiver Tim Patrick leads the Utes with 29 catches for 501 yards and five touchdowns. Patrick, 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, only played briefly in one game last season before missing the remainder of the season with an injury.

In addition to Patrick, sophomore wide receiver Rae Singleton, 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, has 19 catches for 307 yards, one touchdowns, while senior tight end Evan Moai has 18 catches for 257 yards, and senior wide receiver Cory Butler-Byrd has 17 catches for 263 yards.

“It’s just the size difference,” ASU senior defensive back De'Chavon Hayes said. “They are bigger than a lot of corners in the Pac-12. A couple of them are 6-3, 6-4, and a challenge is to get up in them and force them to make plays, don’t let them get easy catches.” 

At the helm of Utah’s offense Whittingham, in his 12th season as head coach. Graham said he compares Whittingham’s program to Colorado under head coach Mike MacIntyre in terms of what ASU is trying to accomplish with its own program.

“Tremendous respect for Kyle and what kind of job he does,” Graham said. “Our players, there’s a lot of mutual relationships. Our guys know a lot of their guys and got a lot of respect. Very disciplined. You play them, you better bring it. It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be a blocking and tackling game and you better win that and it’s a physical war and our guys know that.

“I just think their programs are very like-minded in what we are trying to accomplish here with character, smart, discipline and tough and have a lot of respect for what they do on the field. They are one of the, right now one of the top two or three teams in the Pac-12 so we will have our hands full.”

Utah Defense

The Utes are No. 3 in the conference in rushing defense, allowing 128.3 yards per game on the ground. Utah is led by a talented front seven and for ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen, it’s a familiar group of players to scheme against.

“Utah is as far as they stack up, they are the best group we have faced thus far,” Thomsen said. “I thought UCLA was really good and USC had a good front, but I thought, the thing is I am so familiar with these guys, going against them for years and got a lot of respect for the way they play so we’re excited about the challenge of it. We know they are going to bring it and we got to match their intensity.”

ASU junior offensive lineman Evan Goodman has been playing against the Utah defensive line for the past four years and said "it’s good" that he can use those experiences to help prep for Thursday.

“A lot of respect for them talent-wise,” ASU tight ends coach DelVaughn Alexander said. “Up front they are physical and going to try to change the line of scrimmage and their backers are going to be downhill and it’s just our job to match that. We have to keep the line of scrimmage moving forward instead of just breaking even.”

With a talented and experienced front seven, Utah has 24 sacks this year, led by senior defensive end Hunter Dimick. The 6-foot-3, 272-pounds defensive lineman has recorded 38 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks and one forced fumble and fumble recovery so far this season.

Last year, Dimick played in seven games with five starts, missing six games due to injury. 

“He (Dimick) is more going to be on your right tackle and No. 50 (senior defensive end Pita Taumoepenu) is going to be more on your left tackle and those guys are going to be two of if not the best pass rushers in the Pac-12 so we’ve gone against them a lot,” Thomsen said. “We know them, it’s just a matter of going out and playing fundamentally sound and play really hard to keep them off your quarterback and they are great in the run game too. Well-rounded players. Both of them.”

Taumoepenu, 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, has 25 tackles, five tackles for loss, four sacks, and two forced fumbles. Last year, Taumoepenu played in all 13 games and was tied for No. 10 in the Pac-12 in total sacks with six.

“They’ve got a ton of experience, and they are both seniors and so they’ve seen everything there is to see and on top of that they play with great tenacity and physicality,” Thomsen said. “They love the game. All the ingredients you want from really good football players.”

Led by Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, who is in his first year at the position after eight seasons coaching Utah’s safeties, the Utes run a base four-down front, but tend to mix it up across the line, similar to what ASU faced against Oregon.

“They are a base four-down front and that’s what they like to play, but they will mix in an odd front to keep you honest in some of your run game and some of the ways they like to pressure.” Thomsen said. “Very good scheme. Ever since I’ve been here it’s basically been the same scheme. A little bit of different wrinkles with different coordinators, but it’s the same Utah. Physical, play hard and really sound in their scheme.”

ASU senior offensive lineman Stephon McCray said Utah is a “very talented group,” but he doesn’t see ASU’s typical game plan changing in any way against a talented rushing defense.

“I don’t think the game plan necessarily changes week in and week out,” McCray said. “We want to run the ball and that is definitely something we will look to do this week and it will be a challenge. They definitely have a great front seven, but we don’t look at it any different than any other week really.”

In the secondary, Utah currently leads the nation in takeaways with 23 and is tied for No. 1 in the nation with 15 interceptions.

“Just their aggressiveness,” ASU senior wide receiver Tim White said regarding Utah’s success in the secondary. “Their ability to get up and take the ball away, they are always looking for the ball so it shows with turnover margin and what they put on film. It is what it is. They do a great job of playing football.”

Utah senior cornerback Brian Allen leads the Utes with four interceptions, senior linebacker Marcus Williams has three and senior cornerback Reginal Porter, sophomore safety Chase Hansen, and junior safety Jordan Fogal all have two interceptions this season.

“The longer you have to work with a team, the more connection and chemistry they will have and obviously it shows on film and it has shown on the season and they work well as a group,” White said.  

Hansen leads the Utes' defensive squad overall with 58 tackles, five tackles for loss, two interceptions, two pass breakups, four passes defended, two quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. 

“They play an aggressive style of football,” Alexander said. “They are going to pressure you. They will get in your face, they are going to play you hard out on the perimeter so that’s the thing that they have done since we have been here. We just have to take care of us.”

Regarding Utah’s special teams unit, Graham said it will be the best unit ASU has faced this season. Utah is No. 1 in the country in punting with an average of 45 yards per punt behind the leg of sophomore punter Mitch Wishnowsky.

“Their punter is the best in the nation right now,” Graham said. “So this is the biggest challenge we’ve had from a special teams standpoint. Great kickoff return. They can be very explosive there. Very explosive with their punt unit and flipping the field and when I think of Utah I think of special teams and defense.”

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