SunDevilSource: Utah has a chance to win 10 games for the second season in a row if it can finish strong this year. There were some struggles in the adjustment to the Pac-12 but lately the Utes have been rolling. What things have enabled this, and what's the mood around the program of late?
Dan Sorensen: This Utah program has taken on the personality of head coach Kyle Whittingham. It is a tough-nosed, blue collar team that likes to hit hard. The Utes pride themselves on running the football, in playing great defense and special teams, while being physically punishing on the line of scrimmage. As the Utes have been able to build real Pac-12 depth on the recruiting trail over the past few years, the victories have followed. The team has embraced its role and reputation, and overall there's a feeling in the program that the Utes are building something special. They know they have talent and have legitimate aims to compete for conference titles.
SunDevilSource: What are the biggest differences about this Utah team from last year and what are the things that are most similar, in terms of scheme and personnel?
Sorensen: The biggest difference is that the Utes have a much more consistent passing game on offense. Utah still wants to run the ball, and since his resurgence, running back Joe Williams has been one of the best backs in college football. That said, quarterback Troy Williams is much more capable of hurting defenses with his arm than we've seen from Utah offenses the past few years. When he's on, Williams has been adept at moving the chains and helping the offense maintain possession. Senior receiver Tim Patrick has been Williams' favorite target this year, and his ability to perform will make a difference once again this week. If both Williams and Patrick can have big games, that will bode well for the rest of the Utah offense.
SunDevilSource: Defensively, the Utes have grabbed 15 interceptions and forced 23 turnovers, both best in the Pac-12. What are the factors that have contributed to this and is it the most important factor in the team's success? Why or why not?
Sorensen: Utah is known for its aggressive defense, so the turnover numbers aren't too surprising. The Utes have an experienced secondary, with four senior cornerbacks and arguably the best safety tandem in the Pac-12 in Marcus Williams and Chase Hansen. Of course, the interceptions all begin up front. Utah has a terrific defensive line, led by end Hunter Dimick, who is among the Pac-12's sack leaders, and tackle Lowell Lotulelei, who is one of the more disruptive linemen in the league. By and large, Utah has been able to create pressure on the quarterback without relying too heavily on the blitz, which has been a big contributor to its success in forcing turnovers.
SunDevilSource: What does this offense do well and in what ways is it more challenged?
Sorensen: The offense is what you'd expect from a Utah offense. The Utes are a spread team and run almost exclusively out of the shotgun. They are run-heavy and will give defenses a steady diet of read-option plays and runs out of the pistol formation. They've been more balanced than in past years, with the ability to throw the ball, and the run-pass option has become a prominent part of the playbook. If ASU tries to crash hard on the run game, Utah will try to burn the secondary with slants. Utah's Achilles' heel on offense this season has been its red zone efficiency. Far too many promising drives have entered the red zone without the Utes being able to come away with points. It cost Utah the game against Cal.
SunDevilSource: Who do you see as the key players to watch for Utah in this game and why?
Sorensen: On offense, it's pretty obvious that if they're going to win, the Utes need big games from quarterback Troy Williams, receiver Tim Patrick and running back Joe Williams. Those three are the biggest offensive producers for the Utes and will need to continue doing so. One player to watch is left tackle Garett Bolles, who is big, athletic, and plays with a nasty streak that sets the tone for a very good Utah offensive line.
On defense, linebacker Sunia Tauteoli will be an important factor. Utah will need him to play well to prevent the Sun Devils from eating up big chunks of yardage on the ground. Safety Marcus Williams will be another key player for the Utes. He's been injured for the past two games, and his return will help strengthen an already talented secondary.
SunDevilSource: What type of game are you expecting and what's your prediction?
Sorensen: This is a Utah football game, so I'm expecting a tight contest that won't be decided until late in the game. I expect defense and special teams to be the deciding factors, both of which I think favor the Utes. I expect ASU to play better than it has in the past few weeks, but the Utes will pull away late to win 27-20.