1) This Arizona State team as a whole is closer to the early season team we saw struggle, or the one we've seen the last two weeks?
ASU is definitely trending in the right direction. Early in the season it had some new key players, injuries and illness on offense that proved challenging for offensive coordinator Mike Norvell as he tried to get a feel for his personnel and there wasn't much of a rhythm. The Sun Devils also have a new special teams coordinator and that took some adjustment as well. Defensively ASU's been pretty good all season, and great against the run. With it starting to get healthier on offense and more established in its special teams, the Sun Devils should play better football in the second half of the season than in the first half overall.
2) We're all aware the Mike Bercovici can sling it, but what about his legs? What kind of a running threat is he?
It's a good question because the zone read component of ASU's offense is very important in keeping defenses honest both on the backside of the play and sometimes even on the frontside, where it is trying to attack the adjustor -- or read defender. Early in the season Bercovici wasn't pulling the ball when the read player was crashing and it was closing down ASU's inside run game. He started to pull the ball more as the Pac-12 schedule got underway and in recent weeks ASU's put a new wrinkle in which has Bercovici as the inside run threat with the tailback expanding the adjustor. It's worked well and he's run more successfully in recent week though isn't as good of a threat in this regard as the quarterback he's replaced, Taylor Kelly. But Bercovici is a better overall pocket passer.
3) What's the best way for Utah to attack the aggressive ASU defense?
ASU's defense is great against the run but also susceptible to big play breakdowns in runs up the middle because so much of its pressure is applied from overload pressures that leave one inside linebacker to manage the interior gaps. ASU runs really well to the football laterally and when it is setting the edge, it's hard to run on in the perimeter. To have success, it'll have to win against freshman end Joseph Wicker and senior Devil Antonio Longino on the edges at the point of attack, and try to break some runs with quick hitting plays on the interior. While ASU is really good against the run, it is more susceptible against the pass, especially at safety. The Sun Devils give up 7.8 yards per play in the passing game, which is worst in the Pac-12. It's a byproduct of how attack oriented it is. There's a lot of man coverage. Bandit safety Jordan Simone is the most vulnerable coverage player in the secondary followed by field safety Kareem Orr. ASU's senior corners have done extremely well but if Utah can generate one-on-ones against the ASU safeties on vertical concepts and have its receivers win some of those reps while max protecting, that's a good recipe for some big plays.
4) Utah has a tremendous special teams unit. How does Arizona State's match up?
This was a major weakness for the Sun Devils in recent years and never more obvious than when they played against the great special teams play of the Utes. ASU brought in Shawn Slocum, former coordinator for the Green Bay Packers, this year to coach its special teams and his schemes are very sound but are complex and there were some challenges initially. More recently, ASU has really settled it. It has been buoyed by the performances of junior punter Matt Haack, who done a lot better this season with hang time and not allowed as many returns and been good at pinning opponents inside the 20. Even better than that for ASU, junior kicker Zane Gonzalez has been very reliable on kickoffs, with nine touchbacks on nine tries last week against Colorado. That was a weakness last year as ASU gave up a lot of good starting field goal position. Also, watch out for junior Tim White in the return game. He's now leading the league at more than 28 yards per return.
5) If Demario Richard is limited, what does that do to the ASU offense?
It would be a big hit because Richard is very durable and physical and likely mean a much heavier workoad for sophomore Kalen Ballage, who had mono and missed the first three games of the season as a result. Ballage is explosive in the open field and big at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, but hasn't ever had to shoulder a heavy workload at this level. ASU may elect to give some carries to junior De'Chavon Hayes, who was moved to defense a few weeks ago after struggling on offense with assignments. The other option is to use senior D.J. Foster more in the backfield, and that's never a bad option considering Foster is the only player in FBS with more than 2,000 yards rushing and 2,000 receiving. He has mostly played wide receiver this season, but ASU's had him in the backfield at times.
6) How will this game play out and who will win?
I expect we'll see a close, lower scoring game that will hinge on turnovers, red zone conversion and special teams. Utah is an incredible plus-10 on turnover margin while ASU is well below its average in the Todd Graham era in this category. Especially going on the road, ASU needs to take care of the ball, but if it does so, it should win given that it is probably a more talented team athletically. The Sun Devils' defense happens to be very well suited to play Utah from a scheme and personnel standpoint. That's been demonstrated the last several years. In Tempe last season, Utah had 97 yards of total offense at halftime and Travis Wilson threw for just 57 total yards in the game, with ASU cornerback Lloyd Carrington shutting down Utah receiver Kenneth Scott. I'm picking ASU to win 20-17 in a defensive slugfest with a strong field position undertone.