Utah is back in action on Thursday night against Arizona State, and the game will have big implications in the Pac-12 south race. UteZone caught up with ASU insider Chris Karpman of SunDevilSource to discuss what to expect from ASU.
After a hot start to the season, Arizona State has lost four of its last five games. What is the primary reason behind the slide and what have the Sun Devils done that could potentially right the ship against the Utes?
Starting quarterback Manny Wilkins suffered an ankle sprain against USC on Oct. 1 and ASU lost that game and three of the next four. Backup quarterback Brady White was injured and knocked out for the season in the fourth-quarter of ASU's win over UCLA, and the Sun Devils have had to rely on their fourth-string true freshman quarterback in other games. But ASU's injury issues go far deeper than that. The team had nine starters who were unable to play against Oregon in the team's last game, including their best running back, best wide receiver, two best linebackers, best safety and best cornerback. I haven't seen an ASU team face this many injuries to key players in 20-plus years.
Additionally, ASU's passing defense has been historically bad, a continuation of last year. The Sun Devils were last nationally in FBS in passing yards allowed, and are again in last place this year. They give up more explosive plays of 30-plus yards than any team nationally. A lot of this stems from the pressure ASU puts on its secondary via man coverage because of it's blitz-oriented approach. There's a boom or bust component to the ASU defense. That worked well for the team in 2013 and 2014 when it 10 games in back-to-back seasons. But 2015 and 2016 have been a bust.
What's the latest with the injury situation with the Sun Devils? We know that they've been hit especially hard at QB. Who's going to get the start and how do you think they'll perform?
Wilkins looks much closer to full strength now than at any time since the USC game. He's been running around in practice and and a shoulder he hurt against Washington State when he was trying to play while hobbled, also is now allowing him to throw the ball seemingly normally. If for some reason he's knocked out, true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole will again replace him. Sterling-Cole started at Oregon in ASU's last game.
Elsewhere, starting senior linebacker Salamo Fiso, the team's leading tackler from last season, is doubtful to play with a knee injury. The team's second-leading tackler from last season, linebacker Christian Sam, hasn't played since the opener due to a high ankle sprain. Starting safety Armand Perry (turf toe) and starting cornerback Kareem Orr (knee) didn't play against Oregon but should be on the field starting on Thursday. Starting running back Demario Richard should be back in the lineup after missing the last game. One or two starting offensive linemen, should still be out. Senior wide receiver Tim White has been very limited after only playing on special teams last week.
The Sun Devil defense has given up more than 36 points per game. What has been the biggest cause of their struggles, and how do you expect them to attack the Utah offense?
It's been a recruiting failure in the secondary and at inside linebacker coupled with an inability to adapt to their resulting challenges. ASU needs athletic and skilled coverage defensive backs in order to hold up on the back end of an ultra-aggressive approach to defense because those players are often force to hold their own on an island in man coverage. But the Sun Devils don't have enough players who can run and cover successfully when they don't get to the quarterback and have had a lot of assignment errors in addition to this. They've not tackled well either, and they've not adjusted.
ASU is blitzing a bit less this year, especially with six pass rushers, but it hasn't improved the coverage results. Even though ASU's done well against the run, it has sold out to do so and mortgaged its ability to stop the pass. They'll definitely try to pressure the Utes on Thursday, but it's a dangerous strategy given how Utah is good at max protecting and getting the ball vertically down field.
Despite the losing record, ASU is able to put up points in bunches. What is the strength of the offense? What do you expect the game plan to be against the Utah defense?
The Sun Devils have a new coordinator this year, first-year coach Chip Lindsey, who replaced current Memphis head coach Chip Lindsey. With that transition, ASU's now running less of the Gus Malzahn offense, but is still a spread, no huddle team. It is just doing it with more of an Air Raid type element to its passing game. It's primarily an 11 personnel, one back, one tight end system, which hasn't changed. But ASU's trying to get the ball out more quickly and operate with a quicker tempo. But that's only been the case when it's been healthy. It's still a scheme that is going to try to run the football to establish balance and open up the field, but there've been mixed results in that regard.
ASU's key players are Wilkins, leading receiver Tim White, who operates in the slot when healthy, junior running backs Demario Richard (a 1,000 yard rusher last season) and Kalen Ballage, true freshman receiver N'Keal Harry, one of the better first-year offensive players in the Pac-12.
What's your prediction for the game, including the score?
ASU's still quite banged up and that, coupled with its run game challenges and passing defense, make for a tough situation. It's not a bad matchup for ASU because of Utah's style of play, which is run first and not as dynamic passing. But even so, I still don't think that ASU has enough gas in the tank right now to win. My pick is Utah on top, 30-23.