TEMPE, Ariz. — Todd Graham is like a lot of football coaches. He is prone to hyperbole when discussing good players — his own and his opponents’. When the topic turned to Utah running back Devontae Booker, however, it was hard for the Arizona State coach to exaggerate.
“I think that he’s up there in caliber with (UCLA’s) Paul Perkins,” Graham said Monday at his weekly press conference. “Those two guys have got to be as good as there is in this league.”
The Sun Devils (4-2) travel to Salt Lake City to face the No. 4 Utes (5-0) on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium in a game ASU must win to keep any realistic shot at the Pac-12 South title alive. ASU has won its last 11 meetings with Utah, dating to 1977. To run that streak to a dozen, however, priority No. 1 will be stopping Booker.
“He’s a power, downhill runner; makes a lot of his yards straight ahead and cutting it back,” Graham said. “I think their offensive line is blocking really well and that, coupled with a great back like Booker, is a big challenge.”
Booker is second in the Pac-12 and tied for 15th in the nation in rushing yards with 665. Utah’s in-your-face, try-and-stop-us style has kept Booker’s yards-per-carry to a modest 4.8, but he has been a workhorse. His 140 carries are tied for second in the nation behind Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, who has played an extra game.
At 5-feet-11, 212 pounds, Booker carries a compact and versatile load.
“He’s fast, he’s physical, he can block, he can catch. He’s just a great back,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said before the Utes beat the Ducks, 62-20 on Sept. 27 — the most points Oregon has ever allowed in a home game. “He’s not one of those guys where you go, ‘OK, he’s not good at this, we can take advantage.’ There’s no phase that’s a weakness. He never gets tackled by one guy — ever!”
Last season, Booker played sparingly in the first three games of the season but he averaged 133.3 yards in the final 10 games, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors and All-Pac-12 Academic first-team honors.
Booker is coming off his best game of the season — a 222-yard, two-touchdown performance in a 30-24 win over California. Booker had 267 all-purpose yards, which is the most by a single player against a ranked team this season.
That performance earned Booker Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Utah’s rushing attack is ranked third in the conference and 24th in the nation at 216.2 yards per game. The Sun Devils are ranked fourth in the Pac-12 and 45th in the nation against the run (138.8), but ASU is second (Washington) in the conference in fewest yards allowed per carry (3.3).
“The team that can run the football is the one that will have the advantage,” said Graham, who expects to have his own star back, Demario Richard, available after Richard left the Colorado game on Saturday with a leg injury and exited the field on crutches.
“The key is push,” Graham said. “If they get push, then they’re winning.”