No. 18 Arizona State has improved mightily in recent years — but enough to win at Utah?
ASU has come a long way in the past two years. Emblematic of that ascension is its dynamic dual-threat quarterback, Jayden Daniels
The last time Arizona State visited Rice-Eccles Stadium, almost exactly two years ago, Utah was a veteran team on its way to an 11-win season and the second of back-to-back Pac-12 South titles.
Utes on the air
No. 18 Arizona State (5-1, 3-0)
at Utah (3-2, 2-0)
Saturday, 8 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700
In that 2019 game, the inexperienced Sun Devils were ranked No. 17 and the Utes were No. 13. Utah won, 21-3, and the Sun Devils finished the season with a 4-5 record in the Pac-12.
As the two programs meet again Saturday (8 p.m. MDT, ESPN), No. 18 Arizona State (5-1, 3-0) is looking to take control of the Pac-12 South race.
ASU’s remaining opponents in the regular season are Washington State, USC, Washington, Oregon State and Arizona. Saturday’s game at Utah could be Arizona State’s most difficult test left on its schedule.
“Another Pac-12 game. Anything can happen,” ASU coach Herm Edwards said of this week’s matchup. “Very physical football team in all three phases of football. Very well coached. There’s a blend of young, talented players on both sides.”
If the Sun Devils can beat the Utes (3-2, 2-0) — they’ve lost two of the last three meetings played in Salt Lake City — they can make a strong argument that they’re the best team overall in the Pac-12.
“Arizona State is a good football team — first-place in the Pac-12 South at 3-0. They’re solid across the board,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “Their quarterback is dynamic. They’re very balanced on offense. Good running back, good receiving corps, the offensive line is playing well. Defensively, they’re playing well. There really is not a weakness that you can pick apart. We’ve got to play exceptional football this weekend. It should be, hopefully, a great matchup.”
ASU has come a long way in the past two years. Emblematic of that ascension is quarterback Jayden Daniels. In 2019, he was a talented freshman still learning how to play at the college level.
Now, Daniels is among the best in the country in total offense. He’s rolled up 1,638 yards on the ground and through the air this season. Daniels has completed 96 of 137 passes for 1,262 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. The junior has rushed 55 times for 369 yards and three TDs.
“He’s had two more years of experience. That’s probably the biggest thing. His style of play has not changed. He’s dynamic and he’s able to make plays with his legs,” Whittingham said. “He can extend a play as good as any quarterback in the country.
“He’s a good thrower as well. He’s a true dual-threat. It’s two years of maturation and experience in their system,” Whittingham continued. “He’s tightened up his entire game. He’s an outstanding player and we’ll try to have an answer for him.”
Daniels has an arsenal of playmakers at his disposal, including running back Rachaad White (421 yards rushing, nine touchdowns), tight end Curtis Hodges (12 receptions for 256 yards) and wide receivers Ricky Pearsall (19 catches for 256 yards and two touchdowns) and LV Bunkley-Shelton (18 receptions for 234 yards and one TD).
“We always love the challenge on the defensive side of the ball,“ said Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III.
Defensively, ASU has also been impressive. The Sun Devils held Stanford to 10 points in their win last Friday. In ASU’s three Pac-12 games, it has given up only one second-half touchdown.
“They have some really good players on the back end. They’ve got an older group, a bunch of seniors in the secondary, guys that have played a lot of Pac-12 football,” said Utah wide receivers coach Chad Bumphis. “We’ve just got to work our technique and work our fundamentals. They’re going to get in our faces and play man-to-man defense.”
At this point of the season, Utah and ASU have played one common opponent — BYU.
Edwards is wary of Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“It’s a tough place to play,” he said. “They have a nice fan base. We anticipate it will be loud.”
The Sun Devils struggled with the crowd noise at LaVell Edwards Stadium, leading to several false-start penalties. Will they have similar troubles at Rice-Eccles Stadium?
No doubt, Utah and ASU have established a bit of a rivalry over the years. That happens when teams meet often with a lot at stake — which will be the case again Saturday.
“There’s somewhat of a rivalry feel. We have it with USC as well,” Whittingham said. “When you’ve had some close games in the series and a little bit of back-and-forth, that lends itself to that feeling.”