Pac-12 South-leading Utes head to Tempe to take on Sun Devils
Four straight victories have placed Utah in the Pac-12 South driver's seat. Now the question looming ahead of Saturday's clash with Arizona State is whether the Utes can avoid their usual November swoon and clinch the divisional title.
Utah (6-2, 4-2 Pac-12) debuted at No. 15 in the CFP rankings on Tuesday. No Pac-12 team is hotter than the Utes at the moment. They have won four straight while scoring at least 40 points in each game for the first time since 2004. Utah eventually reached the 2005 Fiesta Bowl that season as the original BCS buster.
Arizona State (4-4, 2-3) could present the Utes with a challenge after getting back on track with a 38-35 win over USC on Saturday. The Sun Devils shut down Utah's offense a year ago and return a solid defense again this season. Arizona State will need to find a way to generate offense, however, against a Utes defense that ranks among the nation's best.
The Sun Devils snapped a two-game losing streak in the series with a 30-10 win over Utah last season. Arizona State holds a 21-8 lead in the all-time series. The Utes have never won consecutive games in Tempe.
Utah at Arizona State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 3, at 4 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Utah -7.0
Three Things to Watch
1. Zack Moss vs. Eno Benjamin
Two of the best Pac-12 running backs will take the field on Saturday. It will be fun to see if Zack Moss or Eno Benjamin can play a bigger role in the game's outcome.
Moss is coming off his finest performance to date. The junior rushed for a career-best 211 yards in Utah's 41-10 win over UCLA. For the season, he has piled up 964 total rushing yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Moss ranks sixth nationally in total rushing yards and seventh in rushing yards per game (120.5). He needs 549 more yards to break the single-season record at Utah.
Benjamin has been a beast in the backfield for Arizona State, totaling 938 rushing yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 117.3 yards per game and 5.7 yards per carry. The sophomore totaled 185 yards and two touchdowns in leading the Sun Devils to a 38-35 win over USC on Saturday. He ranks seventh nationally in total rushing yards and ninth in rushing yards per game.
Getting yards could be tougher for Benjamin. Utah leads the Pac-12 — and ranks third nationally — in rushing defense, allowing 81.1 yards per game.
2. Can Utah avoid early turnovers this time around?
Mistakes out of the gate doomed the Utes last season. Tyler Huntley threw an interception on the third play of the game and never really found a rhythm. Huntley threw four interceptions in his first game back from a shoulder injury. Utah's offense did not get a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter.
Utah has made strides with gaining turnovers during the team's four-game winning streak. The Utes have had nine takeaways in that stretch and a plus-5 turnover margin. They created only four turnovers while giving up nine in their first four games.
Arizona State is good at taking care of the ball. Stanford is the only team to force the Sun Devils to commit more than a single turnover in a game so far. But Arizona State isn't great about generating takeaways either. The Sun Devils have created three total turnovers in five Pac-12 contests.
3. Extra special teams
If you are someone who gets excited by long field goals and flashy punt returns, Utah and Arizona State are both capable of putting razzle and dazzle into that phase of the game.
The Utes continue to set the standard in the Pac-12 for elite special teams play. Utah is the league's co-leader in made field goals (12). Matt Gay has made 10 consecutive field goal attempts and is 7-of-7 inside 40 yards this season. The Utes are also the sole leader in net punting (41.87) behind the consistent foot of senior Mitch Wishnowsky. Solid defense on punt returns is another reason for the good net punting average. The Utes rank third among Pac-12 teams in punt return defense (5.14).
Arizona State has gotten good production from punter Michael Sleep-Dalton and kicker Brandon Ruiz. Sleep-Dalton averages 43.77 yards per punt, trailing only Wishnowsky (45.13) and UCLA's Stefan Flintoft (46.84). Ruiz is third in the Pac-12 as well in field goal average, making 9-of-11 on the season.
Both teams have dynamic punt returners who are threat to score any time they touch the ball. Britain Covey has returned 18 punts for 159 yards for Utah this season. N'Keal Harry has 157 yards and a touchdown on seven returns. They rank third and fourth in the Pac-12, respectively, in total punt return yards. Both Harry and Covey are also the top receivers for their respective teams.
Utah's home loss to Arizona State a year ago marked a low point during a four-game losing streak. The Utes were lifeless on offense and couldn't keep up with the Sun Devils. It is a dramatically different story for Utah this season. The Utes rank in the top half of the Pac-12 in rushing offense, total offense, pass efficiency offense and scoring offense. Couple that with a defense that leads the league in six defensive categories, and Utah has become a nightmare matchup. Arizona State caught a reeling USC team at the right time. That win is a bit of desert mirage. Don't expect a similar outcome this week.
Prediction: Utah 34, Arizona State 17
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.