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Arizona State sees Utah's special teams, run game as biggest challenges in stopping the Utes

Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) runs as Washington State defensive lineman Nnamdi Oguayo (30) pursues during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) runs as Washington State defensive lineman Nnamdi Oguayo (30) pursues during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Matt York, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — When Arizona State head coach Todd Graham was asked about facing No. 16 Utah in Tempe Thursday, he didn’t mince words.

“When you play them, you better bring it,” he said during his weekly press conference. “It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a blocking and tackling game. It’s going to be a physical war, and our guys know that.”

There are some interesting match-ups in this game, even if Arizona State’s 2-4 conference record (including a three-game losing streak) is unimpressive. The Sun Devils love to blitz, which could be a challenge for Utah, especially for quarterback Troy Williams. ASU has allowed opponents more offensive yards per game — by more than 100 yards — but most of that came through passing as the Sun Devils allowed opponents 116 yards on the ground but 397 yards through the air.

But Graham sees his team’s biggest challenge coming from an aspect of the game a lot of fans overlook.

“This will be the biggest challenge we’ve had from a special teams standpoint,” he said. “They have great kick-off return; they can be very explosive there. A very, very explosive punt unit and flipping the field. When I think of Utah, I think of special teams and defense.”

However, he said, it may come down to ground game.

“Where they’ve really improved, they’ve developed a dominant game in run game on offense,” he said. “And they still have the great skill kids outside and they can throw the ball deep. We have to win special teams, and this will be the biggest challenge we’ve had. It will be the biggest challenge we’ve had running the football, as well as stopping the run.”

Both teams are coming off a bye week, which both programs needed to heal the usual bumps and bruises, as well as a few key contributors who’d been sidelined with injury. Utah’s been hard-hit by injuries, but so has Arizona State. The Sun Devils had 10 starters out in their 54-35 loss to Oregon on Oct. 29.

Utah should see the return of safety Marcus Williams, wide receiver Cory Butler-Byrd, and tight end Harrison Handley, although Whittingham said it may be game-time decisions on some of those working to get healthy before Thursday’s contest in Tempe.

For the Sun Devils, the biggest returns should be that of sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins, junior running back Demario Richard and senior wide receiver and kick returner Tim White.

White’s best game came against Northern Arizona on Sept. 3 when he earned 95 receiving yards, 57 kick return yards and 43 punt return yards. Richard was the MVP of the Sun Bowl in 2014 and has had 100-plus all-purpose yards in 10 of his last 16 games. The return of those players doesn’t mean they won’t see junior running back Kalen Ballage, a 6-foot-2 beast who had seven rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown against Texas Tech, or freshman quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole, who has a quick release and the patience and nerve to stand in the pocket and make plays.

Utah defensive tackle Pasoni Tasini said not knowing which players the Utes will face makes preparation — even with the extra time — a challenge.

“We had to watch a bunch of film,” he said. “Definitely a lot of film on what they might give, what we can see, what we might see. We watched whatever we can. …We don’t know what they’re going to do, so we’ll wait until Thursday and see what they have.”

Whether it’s Ballage or Richard, Tasini said, his job remains the same.

“We’ll just go do our jobs to knock out the run game,” he said. “We’re (preparing) to get a lot of different looks.”

Thursday’s game is a big deal for the Sun Devils in that it is also their final home game. Their season finale is at rival Arizona’s field in Tucson. Graham also mentioned that many of the players on both sides know each other, which makes for a more emotional contest.

“There (are) a lot of mutual relationships,” he said. “Our guys know a lot of their guys, and we’ve got a lot of respect (for Utah). They’re very disciplined.”