By James Romo for DieHardDevil.com ASU faces an opponent this Saturday who is riding some momentum after beating their in-state rival this past weekend. All the while, the Sun Devils will attempt to bounce back from an emotional and heartbreaking loss in Missouri on Saturday. This will be a clash of two teams opening up conference play with identical 2-1 records, but in entirely different moods. Utah brings their physical brand of football to Tempe on Saturday looking to make the statement in their second season as a member of the Pac-12 that they weren’t able to make in their inaugural season playing in a “big time” conference last year. Both teams are eyeing the opportunity to take early control of the Pac-12 South division after unanimous pre-season favorite USC lost to Stanford, leaving the door wide open. Offensively, the Utes will be starting back-up quarterback Jon Hays for a second consecutive week after starter Jordan Wynn suffered a shoulder injury in their second week surprising upset loss to Utah State. Wynn subsequently announced his retirement from football after having battled serious injuries throughout his career, with the most recent injury being the final straw. ASU has had the advantage of playing against three back-up quarterbacks in their first three games, but Hays is no “deer in the headlights” reserve. He took the starting nod for nine games last season during Wynn’s injury recovery, including his first career start in a loss against ASU in Salt Lake City. After leading Utah to a big win against #25 ranked BYU on Saturday, I think it’s probably safe at this point to go ahead and drop the “back-up” moniker that he’s been wearing. Utah will also have All-America running back candidate John White in tow after having sat out last week with an ankle injury. Utah will enter Sun Devil Stadium with a Spread/West Coast hybrid offense intent on riding their running game with White returning to the backfield. The standout running back rushed for over 1,500 yards last season and was seen on the Ute sideline against BYU chomping at the bit to be playing. Expect Utah to keep what has been an outstanding ASU defensive line off balance with a mix of run and pass. They were able to use play action very effectively against BYU, so the Devils should be looking for a heavy dose of that this weekend. The Utes will undoubtedly use play action against the aggressive nature of the ASU safeties who have been outstanding in run support this season. The secondary will have to continue to do a great job of reading keys, staying disciplined in coverage, and not allow big plays with the Utah slot receiver getting behind them on seam routes. This was a huge weapon against BYU last week, and Utah will look to duplicate that success again this week, especially with ASU having to prioritize neutralizing White in the running game. Biting on the play action the play action fake will be a definite recipe for big play disaster as Utah has a pair of very speedy receivers in DeVonte Christopher (6-1, 200) and Dres Anderson (6-1, 185). Although Hays threw 3 interceptions last season against ASU, he has grown into a very solid quarterback who took great care of the ball completing 18-27 passes for 196 yards, 2 TD’s, and no interceptions against BYU. Much like Taylor Kelly, Hays has been able to extend plays and complete several difficult tosses down field after his pocket collapsed despite not being nearly as fleet of foot as Kelly. The Sun Devils live and die by the blitz, and will have to do a much better job of capitalizing on their penetration into the backfield making tackles upon first contact with Hays or White. There were a number of times against Mizzou that ASU defenders blitzing from the outside were in perfect position to make a tackle for a loss of yardage, but failed to break down and make the stop. ASU will have to be better in their technique this week while facing a much more elusive John White . Similar to Michael Eubank at ASU, Utah has an imposing freshman quarterback in Travis Wilson (6-6, 220) who will get playing time in certain packages utilizing his superior athletic ability. If there is any weakness in the Ute offense, it would be an inconsistent offensive line. Despite their hulking size, they have only been able to muster what I calculated to be less than 3 yards per carry, and often have breakdowns in pass protection. It was a testament to Hays’ will and toughness that he was even able to finish last week’s game despite having to repeatedly pick himself up off the rug after taking several vicious hits. The offense under Hays isn’t dynamic, but it doesn’t shoot itself in the foot by turning the ball over either. Utah will only go as far this season as their stout defense will take them. Led by All-America candidate Star Lotulelei (6-4, 320), they have been nothing short of bullies against the run. In 2011, Lotulelei was a first-team all-Pac-12 performer and won the Morris Trophy as the league’s best defensive lineman as voted on by the starting offensive linemen, and is expected to be one of the first players taken overall in next year’s NFL draft. He is flanked by brothers Dave (DT) and Joe (DE) Kruger who have shown an exceptional ability to shed blocks and make plays against the run. At rush end in their 4-3 defensive front is Nate Fakahafua who could consistently be seen in the BYU backfield applying pressure on Cougar QB Riley Nelson. The ASU offensive line will have their hands full again this weekend with attempting to open running lanes and pass protect against future NFL talent. Look for Taylor Kelly to continue scrambling and throwing on the run, as he will be under at least as much pressure this weekend as Missouri applied last week. ASU will continue to use the short to intermediate passing game to loosen up a young linebacking core and negate at least some of the pressure that the Ute front 4 will be raining down on Kelly. Much like last week, it should be priority to establish the inside running game to soften up the Utah monster D-line. A conspicuously absent Cam Marshall to this point will go a long way in creating more balance in the Sun Devil offense if he is healthy. Combine a still unproven and unproductive ASU receiving core with an extremely talented Utah secondary, and what you are left with is another heavy reliance on TE Chris Coyle and running backs out of the backfield tasked with the burden of carrying the passing game. Cornerback Ryan Lacy (5-9, 186 with 4.3 40 yard dash speed) is a great cover corner and will have two of his secondary mates back this weekend. Safeties Eric Row (hamstring) and Brian Blechen (suspension) will bolster the already stingy defense making turnovers, dropped passes, and penalties way too difficult to overcome for a Sun Devil win. Utah punter Tom Hackett earned Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week honors this week after pinning BYU inside its own 10 yard line three times on Saturday. They were also able to convert a fake punt into a first down from inside their own territory. Also, the Utes were penalized for 10 times against BYU for a total of 112 yards including 6 personal foul calls. Much of this can be attributed to a highly emotional game that got chippy between the two rivals early and often. The team that I watched on Saturday night against BYU instead of the team that lacked intensity and lost to Utah State is who ASU should be expecting to show up on Saturday night. For the DieHard Sun Devil fans in the stands? Well, we can expect to see an extremely physical game that’s going to require ASU to come out with a lot of intensity and jump on Utah early if we want to grab the reins of the Pac-12 South in the first conference game of the season.
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