After an important bye week to rest up and get healthy, the Utes are back in action against the Arizona State Sun Devils.
With only three games left, the Utes look to get to 5-2 in the Pac-12. The conference game will be Thursday, Nov. 10, at 7:30 p.m. on FS1. Let’s take a look at six important numbers for Utah heading into this week.
Technically this is two numbers, but they're important ones. Since joining the P5 conference, Utah is just 1-4 against Arizona State. Although the record is not great, Utah’s only win in that span came last year in an impressive 34-18 showing. Utah was great through the air during that game, and the Utes will need to replicate that game plan if they want to be successful. Arizona State owns the head-to-head matchups with a 20-7 record against the Utes. However, once the helmets are strapped on the only record that matters is the one on Thursday night.
Arizona State scores a lot of points, but the good news is they also give up a fair share. Through nine games, Arizona State has given up 36.6 points a game. Utah has also shown a propensity to give up a few points of their own. The usually staunch defense has given up 76 points in the last two games alone. This has all the makings of another high scorer.
One of the most intriguing numbers is 125. That is Arizona State’s ranking in kick return defense, which also happens to be fourth from the bottom out of all FBS teams. Utah has already taken one back for a touchdown and ranks 39th in return yard average. A factor in the game might be Utah’s ability to get good field position off its returns. Bold prediction alert: Utah returns a kickoff for a touchdown on Thursday.
Since we are on the kicking theme, if you are in the minority that tunes in to watch incredible punting, then Thursday is your game. Arizona State ranks third in net punting average; only two teams are better than the Sun Devils when punting on fourth down. One of those teams is Utah. In fact, Utah is ranked No. 1 in net punting average. As awful as Arizona State is on kick return coverage, it's very good at punt return coverage. The Sun Devils have punted the ball 52 times and given up only 39 return yards. It's a tale of two special teams, for sure. This might have been the first paragraph ever written on punting as a factor to watch. Good for both teams.
Even if Arizona State pins Utah deep in its own territory, the Sun Devil defense has been atrocious. It gives up 513 yards a game, and 397 of those are through the air. Yes, it gives up nearly 400 yards a game in passing. That is good enough for last in the FBS. Second worst is Rice, and it gives up 60 yards fewer a game than Arizona State. This might be the game that quarterback Troy Williams needs to get hot for a final push in conference play. Utah might just throw the playbook out the window and air it out on the Sun Devil secondary.
Utah might be able to get on the board early by forcing a few turnovers. Arizona State has 15 turnovers in its nine games. The Utes have forced 23 on the season, which tops the NCAA as well. Look for Utah to get a few key turnovers that will help set up its offense for some easy scores.
With a playoff ranking at 13 and a few key games left, it will be interesting to see how Utah fares going forward. One thing is for sure: The Utes will have to get past the pesky Sun Devils on Thursday.
Prediction: Utah 34, ASU 27.
Cameron Wood is a graduate of Weber State University and a teacher and coach at St. Joseph Catholic High School in Ogden, Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on twitter @camwood03.