Key Matchups: Utah Defense vs. ASU Offense

UteZone breaks down the key matchups when the Utah defense and special teams take the field

No. 15 Utah (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12) heads to the Valley of the Sun to take on Arizona State (5-4, 2-4) in a Thursday night battle. 

Utah needs to win each of their remaining three games to win the South division and play in their first Pac-12 conference championship game. Arizona State started the season 4-0, but have lost four of their last five games and need to win one game to get bowl eligible. Both teams have dealt with more than their fair share of injuries, playing without multiple starters for multiple games. Both teams are coming off a bye week and are expecting to get some of those injured starters back.

Arizona State Offense

When the Sun Devils are on offense, they want to run the football and they want to play with a fast tempo. They are a unique combination of shotgun offenses, with a running game based on the inside zone and zone-read complemented by a passing game with concepts based in the Air Raid quick passing attack, stretching a defense horizontally to create separation in man coverage and flood zones with multiple receivers.

Manny Wilkens is likely to return from shoulder and ankle injuries to start at quarterback. When healthy, Wilkens is a capable quarterback and a good fit for the system. On the season he is completing 61 percent of his passes for 1,421 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions, while running 76 times for 227 yards and five touchdowns. He can be accurate with the football, putting it at times in a spot where his receiver can run after the catch. He will force the football at times, the reason for the poor TD-INT ratio, and needs to make better decisions when throwing. He does a good job of running the read-option, and is a good runner and athlete for the position.

Wilkens’ backup is true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole. Cole has similar attributes as Wilkens, though his inexperience causes hesitation as both a passer and a runner. He is completing 51 percent of his passes for 388 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions.

Arizona State’s best position group is at running back, where Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage combine to form one of the better tandems in the conference. Richard has been slowed by nagging injuries for the second consecutive year, and his production has taken a bit of a hit. When healthy, Richard is capable of putting up All-Conference numbers. He has run for 532 yards and three touchdowns on 134 carries, missing the Oregon game due to injuries. Richard has power and speed, and is capable of exploding for big plays. Ballage is not as consistent or explosive as a healthy Richard, though at 6-foot-2 and 227 pounds, he can run through or around most defenders. He leads the team with 12 rushing touchdowns, and has run for 468 yards on 98 carries. Ballage will also take several snaps direct from the center, with ASU loading up the backfield with lead blockers. Several of his longer runs this season have come from this ‘Sparky’ formation. Nick Ralston is the third back, and has run the ball 26 times for 125 yards and two touchdowns.

At receiver, the Sun Devil’s will likely be without leading receiver Tim White, who has been limited recently with an ankle injury. White is a solid receiver who can get open, catch the ball and make plays after the catch. He leads the team with 47 catches for 573 yards from his slot position. True freshman N’Keal Harry is turning in a good debut season, catching 35 passed for 380 yards and a team-high four touchdowns. He has great size at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, along with good speed and a natural ‘feel’ for the position. He gets good positioning on his routes despite not being the best route runner and can snatch the ball out of the air with his hands. Jalen Harvey will likely start opposite Harry. Harvey is third on the team with 322 yards on 20 catches. Ballage gets a lot of work in the passing game, catching 23 passes for 263 yards and a touchdown. Depth is a problem for the Sun Devils, mainly due to injuries to White and Cameron Smith. Smith has 11 catches for 183 yards in six games, and the usual starting outside receiver is questionable against Utah. Frederick Gammage rounds out the depth chart, catching 11 passes for 147 yards and a score. ASU doesn’t throw the ball to the tight ends much, but Kody Kohl can sneak down field and get open in the seam, catching six passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns.

Up front, the Sun Devils will likely be without starting left guard Sam Jones and possibly interior lineman Stephon McCray. McCray started the season at center before filling in for Jones at guard. Ignore the published depth chart when it comes to the offensive line, as the actual lineup has differed from the on-field starters in at least the last two games. Overall, the line has struggled due to injuries, allowing 22 sacks on the season to go along with 53 tackles for loss and the second-worst yards-per-carry average in the conference at 3.9 yards per run. Communication appears to be the major issue, as players are not working well together and picking up free defenders or pass rushers. When they do get a hat on a hat, there isn’t much movement and they are not winning many one-on-one matchups. The zone plays where the line can double-team interior tackles to create gaps is where the line is best, and the guards do a decent job pulling and leading, especially in the ‘Sparky’ formation with direct snaps to Ballage.

Tyler McClure has started the previous two games at center, and while he’s been quick and accurate snapping the football, he has been average at best as a blocker. Quinn Bailey and Zach Robertson have been flipping back-and-forth between right guard and right tackle, with neither player standing out at either position. McCray has been playing left guard and doing a solid job, but he was injured in the Oregon game. Steve Miller came in at left guard for McCray in that game and did a decent job in the running game. Evan Goodman has been the rock on the line, the only player to start every game at the same position. Goodman is a quality left tackle and stands out on a weak offensive line.

Utah Defense

The Utes have struggled tackling for most of the season, and have not been able to contain the outside run on a consistent basis. The expected return of safety Marcus Williams and the improvement in health of linebacker Sunia Tauteoli should help the Utes improve in those areas, but the Sun Devils are a team that can put points up on the board in a hurry if one tackle is missed.

Utah’s defensive line is the only unit that is playing well, creating pressure, filling gaps and making plays in the backfield. Defensive linemen have combined to record 36.5 or Utah’s 58 tackles for loss, and 19 of the team’s 24 sacks. Filipo Mokofisi has been Utah’s most valuable defensive lineman, as he can play end or tackle, helping to fill in for injured players and play wherever the defense needs. Mokofisi has 32 tackles, six tackles for loss and four sacks playing as many as three positions up front. Hunter Dimick needs to have a big game against an overmatched right tackle. Dimick has seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss this season, and leads the defensive line with 38 tackles. Defensive tackles Lowell Lotulelei and Pasoni Tasini will likely round out the starting defensive line.

Utah needs better and more consistent play from linebackers Tauteoli, Kavika Luafatasaga and Cody Barton. The group is not reading their keys well, getting caught inside on outside runs too often, and are not fitting their gaps properly. This has resulted in big plays in the running game and a run defense allowing 4.9 yards per carry in conference play.

Williams’ return is big for the defense, as he has been Utah’s best player regardless of position this season. Jordan Fogal has filled in admirably as a center fielder, but he has struggled in run support. Williams is a free safety that can also come down and play physically in the box, and is a sure tackler. The secondary has not tackled well in his absence. Williams and Chase Hansen are the best pair of safeties in the conference, and they allow the corners to play more aggressively in coverage. Hansen has improved in coverage this season, and made the first play in his career on a deep pass against Washington, intercepting Jake Browning deep down the field to set up a Utah touchdown.

Utah’s defense will be challenged by the Arizona State offense, and the Utes need to play a clean, complete came. Utah should dominate the line-of-scrimmage and control the running game. 

Edge: Utah

Special Teams

The Sun Devils are the one team in the conference that can match Utah in the kicking game. Zane Gonzales is the best place-kicker in the country and should win the Lou Groza award. The NCAA’s career record holder for scoring by a kicker (477 points, 475 from kicking) and field goals made (93) has made 20 of 21 field goal attempts this season and has been consistently good throughout his career. Punter Matt Haack is averaging 45.5 yards per punt, netting 43.5 yards per punt, good enough to rank third nationally in net punting.

Arizona State is also good in the return game. Tim White didn’t play receiver against Oregon, but continued to play on special teams. White is averaging 13.7 yards per punt return, including a 70-yard touchdown against Washington State. As a team, the Sun Devils are averaging 22.3 yards per kick return. White leads the team with 514 yards on 23 returns while Ballage has contributed 314 yards on 13 returns. DJ Calhoun returned an onside kick 42 yards for a touchdown against Cal.

Coverage is where the Sun Devils have struggled, allowing 26.7 yards per kick return, including a 100-yard kick return for a score by Washington State’s Robert Taylor—a team and a player who had not been good returning kicks. Punt coverage has been better, as they have allowed 2.6 yards per return.

Utah’s Andy Phillips has been solid in the kicking game, making 14 of 17 field goal attempts. Phillips has consistently been an 82-85 percent kicker throughout his career and is excellent from 40-yards and in. Mitch Wishnowsky is the best punter in the country and has led the country in net punting for most if not all of the season.

Utah’s coverage teams have had the occasional hiccup, but for the most part they have been solid. The Utes are allowing 20.4 yards per kick return, though outside the USC game they have been excellent. Punt coverage has had a major breakdown in each of the past two games, and allowed a punt return for a score late against Washington that turned out to be the winning touchdown.

In the return game, Utah’s kick return team has been playing well recently, averaging 28.7 yards per return in the past four games, including a 99-yard touchdown by Cory Butler-Byrd against UCLA. The punt return game has not been good in conference play, as the blocking has been poor and the decisions of Boobie Hobbs have been worse.

Edge: Arizona State

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