Game Preview: Utah at Arizona State

The Utes open up conference play at Arizona State on Saturday.

Facts and Factors:
Utah (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12) begins Pac-12 Conference play this Saturday, playing Arizona State (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12) on Saturday, Sept. 22 in Tempe, Ariz. The game will kick off at 7 p.m. MST (8 p.m. MDT) in Sun Devil Stadium and will be televised nationally on the Pac-12 Network. Radio is ESPN700 AM (espn700sports.com) and SIRIUS/XM (132/190).

Utah trails the series with ASU 17-6 and has lost the last eight games, including the last six in Tempe. Until last year, the two teams had not met since 1993.

While Utah has not beaten ASU in Tempe since 1976 when both teams were members of the Western Athletic Conference, the Utes did win the last time they played in Sun Devil Stadium, beating Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.

With last week's 24-21 win over No. 25 Brigham Young, Kyle Whittingham improves to 8-8 against teams ranked in the AP Top 25.

Strong safety Brian Blechen will play for the first time this season after serving a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules. Starters who missed last week's win over BYU but who are expected to play against ASU are running back John White and free safety Eric Rowe.

Tom Hackett, a freshman punter from Melbourne, Australia, became Utah's first 2012 Pac-12 Player of the Week after last week's win over BYU. Hackett, playing in his first American football game, had all three of his punts downed inside the BYU 10-yard line. Hackett pinned the Cougars on their 5-yard line once and their 8-yard line twice, the last coming before BYU's final possession of the game.

When Utah has the ball:
On offense, first year Offensive Coordinator Brian Johnson was thrust into the fire in weeks two and three, facing two very good defenses. Utah State ranks 14th nationally in total defense, while BYU ranks 9th in total defense. Each week, the offense has faced very different challenges and looked entirely different. Starting quarterback Jon Hays got his first ever start against Arizona State last year, though the Senior signal caller is hardly the same player that he was last year at this time. Hays has looked like a new player throughout fall camp and the early season, and so has the Utah offense for that matter. The gound oriented rushing attack of 2011 has not yielded the same results this season. Featuring several new Offensive Linemen, and a hobbled John White, the Ute rushing attack ranks near the bottom of the nation, averaging just 113 yards per game on the ground. Still, the mantra of this offense has been time of possession and ball control. The Utes have only thrown 1 interception on the season (Wynn), and lost one fumble. The Utes are still looking for a big play threat on offensive, somebody who has the potential to break a big play out of standard plays. For the season, the Utes still run the ball 57% of the time.

Defensively, Arizona State has not yet faced a potent offense, and may have to wait another week to do so. The Sun Devils handed visiting Illinois a blowout loss in week 2 (#92 in total offense), and narrowly missed on a road victory over Missouri (#78 in total offense). Neither opponent was very good on the ground, but both were atrocious through the air. Against these Division 1 opponents, ASU has been badly outproduced in Time of Possession, averaging only 26 minutes of ball possession per game, compared to 34 minutes for opponents. ASU has only forced 1 fumble on the year, and did not recover that fumble. ASU also allowed conversions on 40% of third downs, a number that the Sun Devils will need to improve on in conference play.

At quarterback, Jon Hays allows the Utes to expand the playbook. Hays is a mobile quarterback who has developed as a passer. Hays completed 18/27 passes against BYU (67%) for 196 yards and 2 touchdowns. With an inexperienced offensive line, Hays also has the ability to maneuver both in and out of the pocket, extending plays with his feet. Hays still needs to improve in his consistency and timing. Hays is a tough, dependable player who the team rallies behind. Still, Hays will not be able to carry a team on his own, and the entire Ute offense will need to contribute at a high level if the Utes want to walk way with a victory on Saturday.

When healthy, John White will touch the ball 25-30 times a game for the Utes, and deservedly so. White is quick, explosive, and displays excellent vision. Unfortunately for the Utes, John White is not full healthy, and his effectiveness will be a question mark leading up to game time. On the optimistic side, John White played most of last season with a bad ankle, and was still able to be extremely productive. If White is able to play, the Utes should expect production. If White does not play, the Utes will need more a better effort from their RBs than they received against BYU. Jarrell Oliver and Kelvin York had a competitive battle for the primary backup job throughout fall camp. Both are strong runners, but the game is still moving fast for these guys, as is evident by their missed holes and how they finished runs. Lucky Radley is the quicker back, and also earned some carries in week 3 against BYU. As a unit, the Utes have averaged about 2.7 yards per carry on the season, which is simply not good enough.

At wide receiver, Utah entered the season with expectations through the roof. Frankly, expectations might have been unfairly high and unrealistic. While DeVonte Christopher, Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott are have raw talent, the trio have been not produced at a high level consistently, and the offense doesn't spread the ball around enough to appease all of the WRs on the roster. Scott has only 4 catches on the season, Christopher had 6 catches against Utah State, but has had only 3 combined catches against Northern Colorado and BYU. Dres Anderson came out of the gates strong with 4 catches in the opener, but has had only 3 combined receptions in the past 2 games. Reggie Dunn made his presence known against BYU after losing his job to Geoff Norwood out of camp, and Anthony Denham has become a strong blocker on the outside, taking some reps away from Sean Fitzgerald who made a case for playing time during fall camp. It's been a different player each week to step up, but for this offense to take it's next step, a familiarity needs to develop between Jon Hays and two or three receivers.

The offensive line is perhaps the position group that showed the most improvement between weeks 2 and 3. Remember, this is a group that has not started the same 5 players in any two games this season. Senior Tackle turned Guard turned Tackle Sam Brenner has been the best lineman for the Utes so far this year, and has not allowed a sack. Senior Center Tevita Stevens is a key to this group…if Stevens can build cohesiveness with the new guards around him, the unit should see even more improvement. Vyncent Jones has been a pleasant surprise, emerging to become one of the Utes most athletic run blockers. True Freshman CJ Poutasi earned his first start at Right Tackle for the Utes against BYU, and performed admirably well against a very tough opposing defense. Poutasi will only get better as he becomes more and more comfortable. Brian Johnson really helped the Offensive Line in week 3 by moving the pocket around, calling play action passes, and using Tight Ends and Running Backs to help the Tackles. To be successful at Arizona State, Brian Johnson and Jon Hays will be instrumental to the success of the Offensive Line.

Get to know one name, Will Sutton. For Ute fans who appreciate defense and are used to quality play from Defensive Tackles, this Sun Devil is fun to watch. Sutton is a rare talent who could excel in either a 3-4 package as an end, or a 4-3 package as a tackle. His versatility is one reason NFL scouts are very high on Sutton, who will either enter the NFL draft after this season (as a early entrant), or after his senior season next year. Sutton is currently second on the team in tackles, and first in sacks (3), and 2nd in TFLs (5). "Devil" end Carl Bradford has been disruptive on the outside of the line with 2.5 sacks and 3.5 TFLs. Defensive End Junior Onyeali has all-conference potential at DE, while Freshman Nose Tackle Jaxon Hood looks like he's got a very bright future ahead of him.

Behind the talented defensive front, the Sun Devils will have a talented trio of Linebackers looking Jon Hays square in the eyes. Redshirt Senior Brandon MaGee is the leader of the LBs, and is hoping to ride a strong senior season on to a career. MaGee has two interceptions on the season. Junior College transfer Chris Young has been a very pleasant surprise to the ASU coaches, stepping into a starting role and excelling. Young leads the team this year in tackles (24) and TFLs (6).

The question mark on the ASU defense is in the secondary. That doesn't mean this group isn't capable of having a big year, rather it means this group has not been tested. Including Jon Hays, Arizona State's secondary has not faced a D1 starting quarterback this year. At corner, Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor. The duo have combined for 5 pass breakups and 5 pass deflections. Osahon is the better of the two, with plenty of experience as a starter, while Carr is the Senior journeyman who has lettered, but takes a bigger role with this years team. At Safety, Alden Darby and Keelan Johnson work very well together. Johnson ranks third on the team in tackles, while Darby leads the secondary in interceptions (2).

When Arizona State has the ball:
The new look Sun Devils will look very new to much of the PAC-12, but to the Utes, many similarities exist between this ASU team, and the Pittsburgh teams the Utes faced the last two seasons. Featuring an unorthodox approach to quarterbacking, Head Coach Todd Graham will lean heavily on the run (rush over 62% of the time). Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell is also new to Arizona State, and came to ASU with Graham after serving as co-Offensive Coordinator at Pitt. With such a run-heavy offense, avoiding 3rd and long situations is critical to the Sun Devils strategy. Through the first 3 weeks, ASU has been successful on 38% of 3rd down conversions.

Defensively, there is no disguising the Utes' strength. The Defensive Line is one of the best in the conference, and Star Lotulelei is simply unblockable. Utah ranks 2nd in total defense in the Pac 12. Utah has allowed only 101 yards per game on the ground, and 3.0 yards per carry. Utah's pass defense has been the biggest surprise of the defense. Many expected Utah's starting DBs to be strong, then came the suspensions to Brian Blechen and Reggie Topps, and the injuries to Eric Rowe and Michael Walker. Still, the Utes pass defense has yielded 167 yards per game, and a very impressive 5.3 yards per attempt. As a whole, Utah's defense has forced 15 fumbles on the season, yet only recovered 4 of those fumbles. Utah has also been very stout on 3rd downs, allowing conversions on only 27% of 3rd down attempts.

When Todd Graham took over at ASU, he had a big decision to make at Quarterback. At first, Mike Bercovici seemed like the favorite, then Michael Eubank's raw athleticism seemed like the difference. In the end, it was Redshirt Sophomore Taylor Kelly who won the starting job, though Eubank's athleticism is still elite enough to get him on the field. Kelly is a dual threat QB who will run the ball about 10 times per game (5 yards/rush), and throw the ball about 20 times per game (10 per attempt). Kelly's ability to throw the ball for a high percentage is what makes him most dangerous however. Meanwhile, expect Eubank to carry the ball about 6-8 times in the game, while throwing the ball about 5 times. Eubank's frame is massive, and defenses have keyed on him as a runner, opening up some big play opportunities through the air.

At Running Back, Arizona State faces several more decisions. Cameron Marshall was an elite talent who was expected to carry the majority of the offensive load in 2012. Thus far, Marshall has split carries with True Freshman DJ Foster, and Junior Marion Grace. The trio has been productive. Grace leads the group with an average of nearly 7 yards per carry, and 5 touchdowns. Foster has an impressive average of 5.7 yards per carry and 2 touchdowns. Marshall, the leader of the group, has only averaged 3.2 yards per carry, with 3 touchdowns. All three backs can catch the ball out of the backfield as well.

At Wide Receiver, the Sun Devils will rotate a lot of wideouts into the game. Despite the many options, Kelly seems to prefer to use his Tight End/H Back Chris Coyle the most. Coyle leads the team in touchdowns and receptions, and it's not close. Coyle's 17 receptions are more than double the next closest receiving option (several tied at 8). Kevin Ozier is a big target on the outside. Jamal Miles is a smaller, quick WR. Ultimately, the Sun Devils will rotate several players through the position. The upper classmen haven't lived up to expectations yet, opening the door for several guys to step up.

Arizona State is not very big on the Offensive Line, but their ability to move has been instrumental in their spread style running game. Two upper-classmen man the tackle positions. Junior Evan Finkenberg is the anchor of the line, having started 24 games in his career dating back to his freshman season. Senior Brian Schwab has great length for the tackle position. Schwab joined ASU as a four-star Junior College recruit, who reported to camp overweight in 2011, and ultimately redshirted. Now, Schwab is contributing in a big way…perhaps a similar route for Utah's Carlos Lozano? Right Guard Andrew Sampson has now started 25 games for ASU in his career. At Left Guard, Jamil Douglas is very athletic, but undersized. New starting Center Kody Koebensky replaces the highly successful Garth Gerhart. Koebensky received a few snaps last season, but hasn't faced anyone as powerful as Star Lotulelei. Look for the Sun Devils to run the ball on the outside with frequency.

As long as Star Lotulelei is healthy, the Utah Defensive Line will remain the strength of this defense. The physicality, energy, and consistency that will be an advantage every week. Lotulelei leads the Utah defensive line in tackles, Tackles for Loss, Pass Breakups, Pass Deflections, and Forced Fumbles. Sophomore Nate Fakahafua is a versatile and athletic player who often finds his way near the ball. Fakahafua is tied with Lotulelei in tackles on the season. Fakahafua can rush the passer, or serve as a very effective defender in pass coverage. Brothers Joe Kruger and Dave Kruger have been dynamic so far this year, both in their own ways. Joe Kruger leads the team in sacks with 2.5 on the season.

At linebacker, the Utes continue to shuffle the lineup in search of the best combination of linebackers. Trevor Reilly is special, and is often overlooked in his new role this season. Freshman LT Filiaga is a beast in the run game, and earned his first start of his career against BYU. Senior Boo Anderson returned to the lineup last week, after missing all of the spring and summer while recovering from a knee injury. Anderson's presence brings a depth to the unit that is valuable and missed. Senior walk-on David Fagergren continues to be a heady, reliable player. Fagergren leads the team in tackles on the season, and is especially valuable in pass coverage. Sophomores VJ Fehoko and Jacoby Hale continue to develop within the defense.

In the secondary, Utah should return to full strength this week with the return of Brian Blechen from suspension. Blechen is a difference maker on this team, and a playmaker. While it may take a little while to get back into the rhythm of the defense, Blechen may bring the "opportunistic" nature back to this group, a characteristic that Coach Whittingham continues to point out as a deficiency. At corner, Ryan Lacy has been very good for the Utes, and will play a huge role entering conference play. Moe Lee brings a bigger, more physical presence to the CB position. Sophomore Free Safety Eric Rowe sat out last week with a hamstring injury, though is hopeful to play this week. With Rowe, Blechen, Lee and Lacy in place, the Utes will have some valuable flexibility. Safety Quade Chappuis has played very well for the Utes in place of Blechen, well enough to warrant a spot in the defense moving forward. Nickel back Reggie Topps is a massive upgrade in talent over the next best option on the outside, and looked much improved against BYU.

Special Teams:
Utah's Special Teams units have been both horrendous, and spectacular. This unit has most definitely affected the outcome of both Utah games this season against FBS teams. Special Teams Coordinator Jay Hill has drawn the criticism of fans, but the players deserve equal amounts of criticism. At PK, Coleman Peterson has struggled mightily all season. Peterson is 3-6 on the season, and 4 of his last 10. Peterson has has not made a field goal shorter than 40 yards on the season. At punter, Sean Sellwood leads the nation in average yards per punt, even after a below average day against BYU. Sellwood has a huge leg, but has not been very quick to get the ball off, partially contributing to the two blocked punts so far this year against the Utes. Freshman punter Tom Hackett earned PAC-12 player of the week honors in his first outing ever, and appears to be Utah's punter of choice when punting on a short field. Hackett's specialty is pinning opponents inside their 10 yard line.

In the return game, DeVonte Christopher is dangerous on kickoffs, though the new rules will make it much more difficult for returners to go the distance on a return. Freshman Charles Henderson has established himself in the other kick return spot, but has especially excelled as a punt returner. Henderson's 57 yard return against BYU set the tone for the game, and changed the way BYU punted the ball (forcing more directional punts toward the sideline). Henderson currently ranks 3rd in the conference in average yards per punt return (currently ahead of a certain Oregon duck).

At Punter, Arizona State has a very good one in Josh Hubner, who is averaging nearly 47 yards per punt. Impressively, of Hubner's 12 punts, 6 have landed inside the 20 yardline. At Kicker, Alex Garoutte is just 1/1 for Field Goals on the season, but is 17/17 on the year on Extra Points. Garoutte made 68% of his field goals last season.

In the return game, Senior Jamal Miles is the guy for Todd Graham. Miles has big play ability, but hasn't broken a big kick return yet. Miles also returns punts, and has averaged a respectable 9 yards per punt return on the season.

Intangibles:
Weather forecasts for Saturday call for clear skies, and very warm temperatures. Mid-day Saturday, temperatures should reach a high of 105 degrees, likely in the mid 90s by the late kickoff.

Utah takes to the air for the first time this season, though with a home game last weekend, the Utes should not face any shortage of preparation time. Arizona State returned home from a road trip to Missouri last weekend, and always seem to play better on their home field.

Prediction:
Utah 20, Arizona State 23


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