TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici has taken long strides in the last couple weeks of the season. He may need to take a giant leap forward if the Sun Devils are to keep their Pac-12 South Divsion hopes alive by defeating No. 4 Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
Texas A&M had a pair of terrific defensive ends, but Utah may boast the best overall defensive front the Sun Devils have seen this season. Utah is ranked 39th in the nation in run defense, allowing 133.20 yards per game. The run game is supposed to be ASU’s strength, but the game is in Salt Lake City and the Sun Devils’ best back, Demario Richard, has been limited this week with a knee injury suffered against Colorado.
It may finally be time for Arizona State’s passing attack to bust out and get some big plays.
“It’s hard, man, to execute 13 plays down the field and score all the time,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “You like hitting those explosive (play)s. That’s something we need to get more of.”
Utah’s passing defense ranks 11th in the conference out of 12 teams, allowing 258.8 yards per game. The Utes have also allowed 11 touchdowns through the air, which is tied for the third-worst total in the conference behind Oregon’s whopping 21 and Colorado’s 12.
The Sun Devils have been encouraged by the emergence of Tim White in the passing game, White had seven catches for 144 yards and two TDs in a win over Colorado last week, but Graham is also happy with the progress of UCLA transfer Devin Lucien, who had four catches for 39 yards and a TD against the Buffaloes
“He made a lot of good catches and he continues to get better every week,” Graham said. “It’s very difficult to come into our program in that short a period of time and really be able to embrace everything that we’re about, and he’s done a great job with that. He’s been a great addition for us, and only getting better.”
Bercovici’s challenge will be ball security. While Utah has given up yards and scores through the air, it has also produced 12 interceptions; one off the national lead
For ASU, the stakes are pretty clear at the midpoint of the season. With a win in Salt Lake City, they would move into first place in the division with a 2-1 record because they would own the tiebreaker over Utah.
If the Sun Devils lose, they would trail Utah by two games in the loss column (and three games due to the tiebreaker) with five games left in the Pac-12 season. That would seem to be an insurmountable deficit and likely relegate ASU to a lesser bowl game.
“It’s a very difficult place to play,” Graham said. “It will be very loud, a very challenging place, but that’s going on the road in the Pac-12. That’s the way it is.”
ASU (4-2) at No. 4 Utah (5-0)
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City
3 KEYS TO VICTORY
Bottle up Booker: Utah running back Devontae Booker isn’t 15th in the nation at 665 yards because of big plays. He averages just 4.8 yards per carry; by far the lowest total of the Pac-12’s top dozen rushers. Booker is a bruising workhorse who does his best work in the tough spaces between the tackles. His 28 carries per game lead the nation. ASU had better be ready for a steady diet of Booker and if they can limit his yards and those of QB Travis Wilson, they can make the Utes one-dimensional.
Get pressure: Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said the key to ASU’s recent success against the Utes has been generating pressure from its defensive front. “It’s not like it’s a form of trickery,” Whittingham said. “They run the same set of blitzes over and over. We just didn’t handle them very well at all the last couple of years and that’s got to change if we’re going to have a chance.” ASU’s challenge will be difficult. Utah has allowed just two sacks this season; the best total in the Pac-12 and tied for the third-best total in the nation.
Lots of touchbacks: Utah ranks third in the Pac-12 and 23rd in the nation in average yards per kickoff return at 25.3. In just seven opportunities, the Utes already have one kickoff return for a touchdown. ASU kicker Zane Gonzalez has produced touchbacks on 17 of his 19 kickoff attempts this season. That will be critical in neutralizing a Utah strength.
NEWS AND NOTES
WR Cameron Smith (knee); OL Dillon Faamatau (knee); TE Dan Vear (unknown); WR Jalen Harvey (collarbone); FS Armand Perry (ankle); TE Grant Martinez (ankle) are out. RB Demario Richard (knee) is questionable.
3 QUICK FACTS
— Arizona State has won 11 straight meetings with Utah dating to 1977. Utah’s last win against the Sun Devils came when ASU played in the Mountain West Conference.
— Utah ranks first in the Pac-12 in turnover margin at plus-10. The Utes have forced 17 turnovers (12 interceptions) while committing just seven.
— The last Pac-12 team to win two road games against AP Top 10 teams in the same season was Washington in 1991 – at No. 9 Nebraska, 36-21, and at No. 7 California, 24-17. ASU defeated No. 7 UCLA at The Rose Bowl earlier this season. The Utes are ranked No. 4.
“The team I’ve seen on film this year isn’t anything like the team last year, and they had a very good team last year,” ASU coach Todd Graham said on Utah.