There’s something unsettling about Arizona State’s upcoming game with Utah. It’s one of those games that can trip up a whole season.
It’s one that is expected to go into the “W” column for ASU, but could too easily go the other way.
On paper, ASU has to be considered the favorite. The No. 22-ranked Sun Devils are off to a 4-1 start and the Utes come into the match-up with a mediocre 2-2 mark.
(*Update: ASU’s defense stepped up big, creating five turnovers, and Brock Osweiler had a banner day with 325 passing yards, as the Sun Devils overpowered Utah for a 35-14 win in Salt Lake City.)
And, to top it all off, the Utah quarterback will be making his first start under center. Jon Hays is a junior college transfer who was pressed into service in the last game when two-year starter, Jordan Wynn, suffered a shoulder injury that is expected to keep him out for several weeks.
Hays engineered a 10-play, 72-yard touchdown drive and finished with 156 yards on 10-of-16 passing. But he also fumbled away the ball for his first turnover as the Utes fell to Washington, 31-14, to drop to 0-2 in conference play.
And that 0-2 start is what makes Utah especially dangerous. The team ASU will meet Saturday will be like a wounded animal that’s been forced into a corner. The Utes are desperate for this win.
When the season started, ASU and Utah were projected as the teams most likely to be fighting it out for the chance to represent the South Division in the Pac-12 Championship game. USC was expected to be the top dog this year in the South, but NCAA sanctions won’t allow them to participate in the championship game.
Not only are the Utes desperate, but they also have an offensive coordinator that will be able to make the adjustments necessary to overcome the loss of the starting quarterback, and get the most from his replacement.
Norm Chow is one of the top offensive coordinators in college football. He could be the X factor in Saturday’s game.
In addition to 37 years coaching in the college game, including tours with UCLA and USC, Chow spent three years with the NFL Tennessee Titans. He took over the coordinator’s role at Utah, his alma mater, last January.
(Guess we should also point out that the Sun Devils counter with 68 years of college and pro coaching, the combined experience of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and defensive coordinator Craig Bray. And we won’t even throw in the years logged by the 65-year-old head coach.)
ASU also has to have a better game than they did last week when they had to rally from a 13-0 deficit to beat Oregon State, 35-20. It was an ugly win, as QB Brock Osweiler had one of his poorer showings of the season and the Devils had to overcome four turnovers.
And the loss of two starters on the offensive line won’t make the job this week any easier.
Senior center Garth Gerhart and Evan Finkenberg, the 6’6″, 292 lb. left tackle, will both miss Saturday’s game after suffering injuries against Oregon State. Gerhart, the 6’2″, 302 lb. redshirt senior, will miss at least one game with a sprained ankle, and Finkenberg had surgery yesterday to repair a torn meniscus in his knee and is likely to be out as long as a month.
The loss of one starting lineman can spell trouble. The loss of two could be a major issue.
We had similar misgivings before ASU, ranked No. 25 at the time, took on unranked Illinois out of the Big Ten. We were afraid the Sun Devils might be looking past the Illini since they had a big game the following week against Pac-12 rival, USC, and we said so in a Phxfan post just before the game.
That game turned into ASU’s only loss this season when Illinois beat them by three points.
ASU and Utah were regular combatants from 1962 to 1977 when they both played in the Western Athletic Conference. ASU joined the Pac-10 in 1978. So this will be the first time in 34 years the Devils have played in Rice-Eccles Stadium. ASU won that game, 47-19.
But don’t expect that kind of finish this time around. The Devils should pull this one out, but it will likely be a lot closer.
There’s too much at stake for both teams. If the Utes win, they’re back in the conference hunt; if they lose, there will be little hope left for a shot at the division title.
Desperation often brings out the best in a team. And ASU needs to keep that in mind Saturday afternoon.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)