The Southern Utah Thunderbirds will face their second FBS opponent on the road in as many weeks when they head to Tempe for their inaugural meeting with the Arizona State Sun Devils. Herm Edwards’ Sun Devils finished 2-2 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, while Southern Utah’s only win of the previous season (played in spring 2021) came away from Cedar City.
Five days separate two primetime matchups on the road against FBS opponents for the Thunderbirds. Southern Utah aims to rebound from last week’s 45-14 loss at San Jose State on Saturday, the Thunderbirds’ first loss by more than eight points since 2019. A win — or at least a competitive performance that keeps the game close, a common theme during the 2020-21 season — would present a sizable momentum boost going forward for the Thunderbirds, who will have three straight home games next on the schedule with more than two weeks (16 days) before they take the field again on Sept. 18 when they host Tarleton State.
Arizona State started the 2020 campaign in November with a narrow 28-27 loss at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against USC, followed by not one, not two, but three consecutive canceled games to round out the month. December picked up right where November left off, with a 25-18 ASU home loss to UCLA. But the Sun Devils finished strong away from Tempe, dominating Arizona 70-7 in Tucson and taking down Oregon State 46-33 to close the season at an even 2-2.
Southern Utah at Arizona State
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 2 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: San Jose State -22
When Southern Utah Has the Ball
While the 2020 season represented some positive signs for the Thunderbirds’ offense, Saturday’s season opener largely displayed the inverse. Southern Utah averaged nearly 284 passing yards per game in the 2020-21 season but mustered just 250 total yards against San Jose State. Senior wideout Judd Cockett found quarterback Justin Miller for an eight-yard touchdown pass, the Thunderbirds’ lone offensive score of the night. One bright spot of continuity could be found up front, as Southern Utah surrendered less than a sack per game in the spring and allowed only one against the Spartans.
Miller brought plenty of excitement into the 2021 campaign after throwing for 284.3 yards per game and 15 touchdowns — good for top-10 finishes in the FCS in both categories — to kick off his collegiate career. Saturday against San Jose State was a different story, however, as the redshirt sophomore completed just 15 of his 29 passes for 117 yards. The Thunderbirds also failed to get much going on the ground; Karris Davis led the way with 36 yards on five carries — 28 of which came on a single rush — while the rest of the team managed just 75 yards on 26 carries.
An initial review of the Sun Devils’ defensive performance in 2020 doesn’t exactly present the brightest picture, especially upon noticing that Arizona State finished 92nd nationally in passing defense, 86th in rushing defense, and 91st in total yards allowed … but 32nd in scoring defense, allowing 23.2 points per game. Upon further review, one of the major factors was the play of senior defensive back and leading tackler Evan Fields, whose seven solo tackles per game tied for fifth in FBS. Not to be outdone, graduate student defensive lineman Tyler Johnson’s 1.25 sacks per game (five total) trailed only Washington’s Zion Tupuola-Fetui for the Pac-12 lead.
When Arizona State Has the Ball
After losing a pair of one-possession games to begin the condensed season, the Sun Devils responded emphatically with 116 points in the next two. Arizona State scored twice in the first 56 seconds against Arizona — including a kick return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff — en route to 21 first-quarter points and 70 for the game. The following week was more of the same, scoring 26 unanswered points in a 13-minute span of game time to turn an early deficit into a commanding 19-point second-quarter lead.
The passing game may not have been the most productive, but quarterback Jayden Daniels is capable of putting up big numbers. He also figures to get plenty of ground support. Arizona State was one of just 30 FBS teams to rush for at least 200 yards per game in 2020, ultimately pacing the Pac-12 with nearly 265 yards per game on the ground. Spearheading this ground game was Rachaad White, who averaged a first down per carry as he blazed for 420 yards on just 42 rushes.
The Thunderbirds’ springtime woes of being unable to keep opponents out of the end zone continued on Saturday, thanks in large part to San Jose State’s 38 first-half points. That scoring pace can be chalked up to a variety of factors, not the least of which being Southern Utah managing just two tackles for a loss and no sacks. The Thunderbirds did tally the game’s only two takeaways, though, with Trent Whalen falling on a muffed punt and Kobe Singleton returning a Nick Starkel interception 18 yards for the Thunderbirds’ other touchdown of the contest.
Edwards has made sure to remind his Sun Devils not to take any opponent lightly, regardless of the conference or division in which said opponent might reside. Look for Southern Utah to tighten up its defense after allowing San Jose State to score the first three touchdowns of the game and jump out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead, but Arizona State ought to be too much — especially in the run game — for the Thunderbirds to overcome.
Prediction: Arizona State 38, Southern Utah 13
Podcast: Week 0 Recap
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.