Utah and Arizona State are fighting to achieve dramatically different goals when they clash on Thursday night.
For the No. 15 Utes, a victory over the Sun Devils means another step forward to claiming the Pac-12 South title. Utah (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12) hasn't won in Tempe since a 31-28 victory in 1976. The Utes snapped an 11-game losing streak to Arizona State a season ago, winning 34-18 behind 297 yards on 26-of-36 passing from Travis Wilson and 118 rushing yards from Devontae Booker.
For the Sun Devils, a win over Utah means reaching six wins for a seventh consecutive season. Arizona State (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) is suddenly in danger of missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 2010 after losing three straight games to Colorado, Washington State and Oregon.
Arizona State leads the all-time series 20-7. Utah is just 3-14 against the Sun Devils in Tempe.
Utah at Arizona State
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 10 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: Utah -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Utah make big plays in the passing game?
It's no secret that pass defense is a major weakness for Arizona State. The Sun Devils allow 397.6 yards through the air per game, which ranks last among all 128 FBS teams. Even worse, Arizona State has allowed 12 scoring plays covering 50 or more yards this season. Utah is well equipped to cash in on these shortcomings.
Utes quarterback Troy Williams leads the Pac-12 with 10 completions of 40 yards or longer this season. Williams is fourth in the league in passing yards per game (209.8), fifth in total passing yards (1,888) and third in passing yards per completion (13.30). He has put together five 200-yard passing games so far – including three in Pac-12 play: Southern Utah (272), USC (270), California (266), San Jose State (257) and Arizona (245).
Williams hasn't needed to do much with how strong Utah's running game has been in recent weeks. Against the Sun Devils, however, he could be poised for one of his best games of the season.
2. Injured starters returning for Arizona State
Injuries are a major culprit for pushing Arizona State into a three-game losing streak. Ten starters have been injured during the course of the season. Now the Sun Devils finally have some good news on the injury front.
Several starters should be able to play this week. Quarterback Manny Wilkins, running back Demario Richard and defensive backs Kareem Orr and Armand Perry are expected to play against Utah. Linebacker Salamo Fiso, wide receiver Tim White, and guards Sam Jones and Stephon McCray all remain questionable heading into Thursday.
Getting Wilkins back at full strength will offer the biggest boost. He struggled in October with ankle and shoulder problems. When Wilkins is healthy, Arizona State's offense is tough to stop. In his first four games, before injuries started piling up, the Sun Devils averaged 48.8 points per game. Teams have struggled with Wilkins' mobility and his passing abilities when he is at full strength.
3. Joe Williams closing in on 1,000 rushing yards
Since returning from his four-game retirement, Williams has shredded one defense after another. In three games since his return, Williams has racked up 683 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. The senior is averaging 227.7 yards per game against Pac-12 teams this season.
Williams has totaled 758 rushing yards in five games, ranking fourth among Pac-12 running backs. He needs just 242 yards to reach 1,000 yards – a plateau that's not out of reach even within a single game. If he had played in enough games to qualify, Williams would rank third in the nation and first in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (151.6).
No team from outside the state of Utah has held Williams under 100 rushing yards since he took over the starting job following Devontae Booker's injury late last season. Arizona State may offer the stiffest test he has faced this season. The Sun Devils are allowing just 116.0 rushing yards per game – leading the Pac-12 in that category.
Facing a team with as good of a rushing defense as Arizona State possesses would normally pose a major challenge for a run-oriented team like Utah. This year, the Utes have a strong enough passing offense to overcome it. The Sun Devils are not capable of stopping big pass plays and that could be a fatal flaw in their quest to get bowl eligible. Utah is a stronger defensive team overall and the Utes are good enough offensively to exploit Arizona State's weaknesses.
Prediction: Utah 34, Arizona State 29
— 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.