Surging Utah faces an Arizona State team in turmoil when the Utes travel to Tempe on Saturday.
The No. 13 Utes (2-1) closed out non-conference play on a strong note, dominating San Diego State for a 35-7 victory last weekend. Utah held the Aztecs to seven passing yards in the first half and allowed only 173 yards on offense. It marked the second consecutive week that the Utes held an opponent under 200 total yards. They allowed FCS Southern Utah to gain a scant 85 yards. Utah is the only Pac-12 team ranked in the top 25 nationally in scoring offense (44.7 ppg) and scoring defense (14.3 ppg).
The Sun Devils (1-2) will enter Pac-12 play with a new head coach. Herm Edwards was fired after Arizona State lost to Eastern Michigan 30-21 last weekend. Interim head coach Shaun Aguano inherits a team that has struggled out of the gates after suffering significant roster turnover from last season. The Sun Devils are averaging 26 points and 375 yards per game through their first three. Both marks rank in the bottom third offensively among Pac-12 teams.
Utah has notched four victories in its last six games against Arizona State, although the Sun Devils hold a 22-10 lead in the series. The Utes are seeking their first win in Tempe since 2016.
No. 13 Utah at Arizona State
When Utah Has the Ball
Once again, Utah's backfield is running all over opposing defenses. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in rushing offense with 216.7 yards per game. A season-ending injury to Chris Curry took away one valuable weapon, but Utah's depth at running back is still quite strong. Tavion Thomas has been relatively quiet since rushing for 115 yards in the opener against Florida, but he is getting plenty of help in the backfield. Micah Bernard is averaging 8.3 yards per carry as a change-of-pace option and Jaylon Glover has shown glimpses of his game-changing potential in a mop-up role through the first three games.
Cameron Rising started slowly against San Diego State, completing just four of his first 13 pass attempts before finishing strong. Rising ended up throwing for 224 yards and four touchdowns while completing 60 percent of his passes. Through three games, the junior is averaging 231.3 passing yards per game with eight touchdown passes.
Rising went through his progressions more fluidly against the Aztecs and looked beyond tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid to get the passing game going. Devaughn Vele and Solomon Enis each had a season-high three receptions against San Diego State and combined for three touchdowns on 73 receiving yards. Make no mistake, though, Kuithe and Kincaid remain the primary targets for Rising because of their playmaking abilities. The tight end duo has combined for 365 yards and five touchdowns through three games.
When Arizona State Has the Ball
Quarterback Emory Jones needs only 96 yards to reach 4,000 in his career. Getting there against Utah will be a massive challenge. The Utes have held their last two opponents to fewer than 100 passing yards. Jones hasn't exactly flourished since joining the Sun Devils as a transfer from Florida. He has thrown for 557 yards and two touchdowns in his first three games while completing 61 percent of his passes. In four of his last five games, Jones has been held under 200 passing yards. That won't cut it in Pac-12 play if Arizona State hopes to bounce back from a two-game losing streak.
The Sun Devils need to get major production from Xazavian Valladay to open things up for Jones. So far, Valladay has been the main bright spot in an average offense. He is the first Sun Devil running back to rush for at least 100 yards in his first three games since DJ Foster in 2014. Valladay is one of only five FBS players to run for 100-plus yards in each of the last three weeks. The senior leads the Pac-12 with 361 yards and four touchdowns through three games. He needs 365 more yards to reach 4,000 for his career.
A coaching change after three games could galvanize Arizona State. More likely, it will send the Sun Devils into a tailspin — at least for this season. Too many Pac-12 teams have taken a step forward from a year ago. Utah is as dangerous as ever. The Utes have a troubling knack for starting slow on offense, but that shouldn't matter enough to make a difference against an offensively-challenged Sun Devils squad. Utah will have few problems extending its winning streak in the budding rivalry series to three games on Saturday.
Prediction: Utah 31, Arizona State 13
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– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
*Price as of publication.