Expert preview and viewing guide: ASU vs Utah

Arizona State is 4-0 on Senior Day in the Todd Graham era, but that mark is on the line with the Sun Devils an underdog at home against No. 15 Utah in a Thursday night game set for 7:30 p.m. at Sun Devil Stadium on Fox Sports 1.

Utah Offensive Scheme

Last year when Utah beat Arizona State 34-18 in Salt Lake City, it ended the Sun Devils' 11 game winning streak over the Utes dating to 1977. Now the No. 15 Utes are looking to start their own streak in Tempe, where ASU is 15-3 all-time in the series. 

Head coach Kyle Whittingham is gunning for his second consecutive 10-win season at Utah, a program that has steadily improved after a rough transition to the Pac-12.

The Utes went 9-18 in their first three years in the conference under Whittingham, but are now 15-9 since the start of the 2014 season. They've successfully re-emphasized their core strengths, after straying a bit from some of the things that yielded so much success in their previous years in the Mountain West Conference. 

It's a program that has a playing and talent acquisition strategy that compliments its regional recruiting base and overall approach to football. Even after replacing many of its key starters from last season on both sides of the ball, the Utes have continued to have a similar level of success. That's a tribute to their overall approach to program development.

Utah became too reliant on its quarterbacks and throwing the football in its immediate transition to the Pac-12 tenure despite not having the right players to really make it work. It learned from this and made a key course correction that has put its team back into a harmonious balance of offense, defense and special teams. 

Utah's dedicated reliance on its rushing attacked hasn't dropped off at all after replacing its quarterback and running back from last season. It's an offense that runs the ball on a little more than 60 percent of its offensive snaps, and relies on creativity, strength and commitment at the point of attack in order to do it. 

This is one of the tougher offensive fronts for opponents to prepare for in the Pac-12, and not just because of the team's line talent. Utah uses a variety of well timed and executed blocks in its power run game to spring its running backs, and also mixes in a lot of well spaced zone blocking, and that contrast is difficult to anticipate and combat. It's an offensive line that gets one of its players free to block a linebacker at the second level more than just about any other team in the Pac-12. There is a great coordination of effort with this offensive line, and the results have been very clear-cut in the run game. 

Though the Utes operate out of the shotgun, the entire approach to offense is ball control, and generating manageable, on-schedule third downs via reliable, low-risk early down play calling. And when they get those short third downs, they're likely to still run the ball far more often than pass it. 

The beneficiary of this great execution up front has been senior running back Joe Williams, who actually retired several games into the season due to injuries, only to return after three other running backs got hurt. He's probably glad that he did, because in just five games Williams has 758 rushing yards and six touchdowns, and is averaging 151.6 yards per game.

The last three games alone, against Oregon State, UCLA and Washington, Williams has rushed for 683 yards and all six of his touchdowns, on a remarkable 98 carries. That's a three-game average of 227.7 rushing yards on 32.7 carries, a 6.96 yard-per-carry average. Against UCLA alone, Williams rushed for 332 yards. To put that in perspective, ASU running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage have 532 and 468 yards rushing this season, respectively. 

Williams has good speed, at 6-foot-0 and 205 pounds, and is a threat on the edge in addition to between the tackles. Enhancing the Utah rushing attack is a quarterback, junior Troy Williams, who does a good job of executing the zone read component of the scheme. It's an offense that also calls a fair amount of designed quarterback runs, like power and draws, similar to what Colorado likes to do. 

Joe Williams isn't the same threat to catch the ball out of the backfield that previous starting running back Devontae Booker was, and the Utes aren't throwing the ball to their running backs much this season. That's a positive for ASU, which has had a very tough time defending such plays. 

Utah's passing offense is primarily quick game and hot route throws, but the Utes also love protecting with seven and taking home run shots with a lone receiver on one side of the field, usually the wide side, in an effort to generate a one-on-one for a hitch-and-go or other double moves. 

The Utes like to use tight ends as smokescreen occupiers of safeties in order to leverage the one-on-one potential on the perimeter, and frequently do it with multiple tight ends releasing from a 3-point stance to mentally jar interior defenders to the key read. 

Utah Offensive Personnel

Troy Williams  (No. 3) -- Williams is a mobile zone-read quarterback who originally went to Washington before transferring to the junior college level and bouncing back to the Pac-12 at Utah this year. He has a low completion percentage of 54.9 percent with nine touchdown throws and five interceptions. He's not a good intermediate passer, though he has a pretty good arm. It's mostly quick game, check downs and long bomb attempts for Utah, with a lot of vertical lines to manage. 

Joe Williams (No. 28) -- A speed back with good size at 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds Williams benefits from great offensive line execution. He was one back in a stable for Utah and retired after injuries two games into the season only to come back after three others also went down. He's now put together one of the most impressive three-game stretches in recent Pac-12 history, averaging 227.7 yards rushing and two touchdowns a game over that span. Williams has great speed but isn't much of a passing or third down threat. 

Tim Patrick (No. 12) -- At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Patrick has great size and above average speed. He's a big play target, often lining up into the boundary and being a threat on fades. He uses his length very well both to separate at the line of scrimmage and get into routes, and also at the ball's arrival. He's a talented red zone weapon, and a player who has to be managed with his vertical threat. Lone cornerbacks have to be successful against him immediately at the snap or else it's a dangerous rep. 

Utah offensive line -- There's no real weakness here, though Salesi Uhatafe (No. 74) is susceptible to linebacker pops and good technical pass rush moves from defensive tackles. At left tackle, junior college transfer Garett Bolles (No. 72) has been an immediate impact weapon and is an NFL prospect. The center position has been a bit in flux but overall play has been solid even after the Utes lost an all-league player at the position from last season. Phoenix-product J.J. Dielman was knocked out for the season with a leg injury. Senior right tackle Sam Tevi (No. 52) is physical but doesn't handle speed especially well. There's a lot of cut blocking as a result. 

ASU Defense Against Utah Offense

The approach ASU coach Todd Graham and Keith Patterson have taken to playing Utah is to aggressively run blitz with slants up front on early downs in order to try to take the run away by channeling and funneling it. The goal is to keep Utah off schedule on early downs and to force it to be more pass-heavy. 

They've had success with this in the past, as Graham is 3-1 against Utah. Last year, Booker had a 62 yard run from scrimmage which skewed his overall numbers, as he finished with 118 yards on 21 carries. Utah thew the ball more than it passed it due to ASU playing so much one-on-one and taking away a numbers advantage at the point of attack. 

Utah is more of a pro-style rushing attack, more vertical than spread, and ASU tends to get more aggressive against this type of team. This is especially the case when there is less of a vertical threat via perimeter athletes at wide receiver. Against Utah in 2014, ASU brought more boundary corner blitzes than perhaps any other opponent because ASU coaches seemed to not be concerned about Bandit Jordan Simone being exploited in space vertically, and the plan worked. 

This year though, the Utes have more of a big play capability that ASU has to be aware of, with six players having 40-plus yard receptions. That makes it hard to attack with the same reckless abandon, and the Sun Devils have to try to make Utah one dimensional while also limiting the vertical lines and big play capability. 

Utah Defensive Scheme

Utah has successfully handed off its defensive coordinator duties from John Pease to Morgan Scalley, who has spent 10 years cutting his teeth with the program.

A former Utah first-team All-Mountain West defensive back, Scalley has moved up through the ranks from administrative assistant to graduate assistant to safeties coach to recruiting coordinator and now defensive coordinator. 

Pease mentored Scalley and the Utes have continued with the defense that the former NFL defensive coordinator managed. It is one of the more NFL-styled defenses in the Pac-12, with left and right personnel, as you typically see in the pro game where there are close hash marks. So for example, its defensive ends and linebackers are always on the same side of the field regardless of whether that's the field or boundary side. It will sometimes play its top cornerback on whomever the opposing team's top wide receiver is, if there is such a clear weapon.

Additionally, Utah does a good job with how it disguises its blitzes and coverages, and it has become more pressure-heavy this season. The Utes will show or decoy certain looks pre-snap and then immediately shift to a different look post-snap in order to make quarterbacks have process errors, offensive linemen and other blockers have protection breakdowns, and even induce receivers with option routes into the wrong decisions.

Utah brings a variety of blitzes including boundary corner, hybrid defender, double inside linebacker blitzes. Something we've seen more of on film this year is an occasional incorporation of a 46 defense, which legendary coach Buddy Ryan popularized at the NFL level. The Utes will dramatically shift their four man front to the weakside in order to generate pass rush advantage while playing two linebackers on the strong side at the line of scrimmage and only have one true inside linebacker. 

The upside of all of this is that it's trickier for teams to contend with, while a downside is that there's often more potential for communication errors and it's harder to run seamlessly. Also, it requires more athletic balance across the field. 

Utah likes to utilize a lot of single-high safety looks and bring its strong safety in closer to the box in his alignments. Up front, it has more of a bull rush type of personnel, with high energy players who have the motor to sustain plays and the ability to collapse offensive linemen back into the pocket and onto the quarterback as well as any team in the league. Pocket integrity could be at a premium for ASU in this game. 

The Utes move their strong safety around based on formation strength, and the result of that is that player, Chase Hansen, seems to always be around the football. He's often found where the play is designed to go, or blitzing to prevent it from being executed and has a team high 58 tackles. 

The scheme is a big reason why Utah is leading the Pac-12 in interceptions, with 15, and total takeaways, with 23. It's a continuation of last year's success on defense, when the Utes led the league with 22 interceptions and finished first in turnover margin. That, more than anything else, has enabled Utah's resurgence. Opposing quarterbacks miss coverage defenders and have a tough time fitting the ball in the widows that are available in Utah's well designed mix of man and zone coverages, which are so well disguised pre-snap. 

Utah Defensive Personnel

Chase Hansen (No. 22) -- Utah's leading tackler with 58 stops on the year, Hansen also has two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and two passes defended. He's intentionally moved around the field to where Utah thinks its opponents will most likely try to execute its play based on down, distance and ball location on the field. He's used as a blitzer but also will drop and cover, and has a broad skill base and is very savvy, as a 6-foot-3, 215 pound sophomore. He's going to be one of the more productive defensive players in the league in the coming years. 

Hunter Dimick (No. 49) --  In the past, Dimick has caused problems for ASU's right tackles with his combination of power and technique. Dimick had a down year last year because he wasn't healthy, but he had 10.5 sacks in 2014 and is back on pace for double digit sacks in 2016, already with seven and 11.5 tackles for loss. One of the biggest subplots in this game is how ASU redshirt freshman right tackle Zach Robertson is able to handle Dimick. It's going to be his toughest test yet, and probably will be too much to handle on his own. Dimick could be threatening ASU sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins all night. 

Dominique Hatfield (No. 15) -- Though he's a bit undersized at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, this Los Angeles product is very quick and agile. Hatfield is probably Utah's best pure man coverage defender but the trade off is he's a little more blockable and able to be attacked in screens and the run game due to his lighter frame. He doesn't get targeted a lot because of his coverage, and also doesn't have the stats, as a result. But he's enabled his teammates to put together big numbers due to how well he's locked up one side of the field. Utah likes to have him shadow an opposing team's top wide receiver on the perimeter, but that may not be a factor in this game. 

Pita Taumoepenu (No. 50) -- At 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, Taumoepenu has evolved from being a third and long or situational nickel speed rusher into a full service player for the Utes in his senior year. He has four sacks and five tackles for loss this season. It's important to watch how ASU's offensive tackles hold up against his quickness off the snap and ability to force quick sets. Usually it'll be the left offensive tackle Utah tests with Taumoepenu, so senior Evan Goodman's performance in third and long will be watched carefully. Taumopenu is a player ASU should try to run the ball at because he's better against the pass. 

ASU Offense Against Utah Defense

The Sun Devils ran the ball poorly against Utah last year, which was the primary contributing factor in its anemic offense and eventual one-sided defeat. Junior running back Demario Richard didn't play, and junior Kalen Ballage managed just 49 rushing yards on 18 carries. ASU was beaten at the point of attack, having the line of scrimmage consistently re-set by the Utes in a forgettable performance. 

With sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins healthier than he's been since the USC game on Oct. 1 when he suffered an ankle sprain, the zone read and run-pass-option component of the ASU offense could boost production and take more pressure off the run game. But the Sun Devils are still going to need greater balance than they've had in losses this season, and against the Utes last year. 

Additionally, ASU's lacked a downfield big play component in its passing attack in the last month, and that's part of what will be needed to keep Utah from getting into a comfortable rhythm and being able to dial up its creative pressures. 

Wilkins has a huge task in this game because of how many land mines are out there with the Utes defensively. They can get to the quarterback on the edge, deceive with coverage and have the players to handle and run with ASU's receivers. 

Utah Special Teams

The Utes have excellent special teams, probably the best in the conference other than perhaps ASU itself. Field goal kicker Andy Phillips has been around forever and is very talented. Punter Mitch Wishnowsky has replaced arguably the best player in the country at the position, Tom Hackett, and there's been no drop off. Utah can multi-directional punt and flip the field better than anyone in the league. Corey Butler-Byrd only has 11 returns, but is averaging 28 yards, which would be second in the league. 

Prediction

Though this is a good style match up for ASU because the Utes aren't pass-heavy by nature nor especially athletic, it's still going to be tough sledding. Utah is playing good football right now and the Sun Devils have lost three straight and are dealing with a lot of injuries, even though they'll get back Wilkins and starting sophomore defensive backs Armand Perry and Kareem Orr. This is a game in which ASU needs its best run stoppers and senior SAM Salamo Fiso is questionable at best with a knee sprain. ASU has not stopped the run in two of its three losses during this streak, and the other opponent, Washington State, didn't run the ball because it had no need to. The Sun Devils should struggle to run the ball very effectively with an offensive line that is young and not cohesive right now due to injuries, and senior Tim White, ASU's top receiver, hasn't been healthy. Junior field stretcher Cameron Smith likely won't play. It's all probably still too much for ASU to overcome coupled with its broader challenges so even though I think it'll be closer, my pick is Utah 30-23


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