He’s baaack…Dennis Erickson & Utah take on ASU football

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                </div>Dennis Erickson and Arizona State are back together on the football field once again.  Only this time, the former ASU head coach will be calling plays from the other side of […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Dennis Erickson and Arizona State are back together on the football field once again.  Only this time, the former ASU head coach will be calling plays from the other side of the field.

The game tomorrow between ASU (6-2, 4-1) and Utah (4-4, 1-4) is a critical step in the Sun Devils’ quest for the Pac-12 crown this year and has drawn attention for its importance to both teams.  But the Dennis Erickson twist to the game story is drawing almost as much attention.

The 66-year-old coach, who won two national titles at Miami and is the only coach to win Pac-10 Coach of the Year titles at three different schools, was fired from his job in Tempe in November of 2011 and, after taking a year away from the game, was hired last February by Utah to be the program’s co-offensive coordinator.  Many of his recruits are still wearing the ASU maroon and gold and will be playing against him tomorrow.

And now he has an opportunity to exact a little revenge on his old employer.

Mind you, Erickson doesn’t seem to hold any grudges and has even publicly complimented the job his successor, Todd Graham, has done in taking the Sun Devils to a No. 23 national ranking coming into tomorrow’s game in Salt Lake City.

But, let’s face it, the opportunity to have a hand in upsetting ASU’s conference-title ambitions this season has to be a welcome challenge.

And a challenge it will be since ASU is ranked No. 17 in the country in total defense, No. 7 in first-down defense, and leads the nation in forcing three-and-outs.  They’re an offensive coordinator’s nightmare.

Utah also won’t get much help from Sun Devil mistakes.  Unlike the days when Erickson ran the program and was often criticized for a lack of discipline that carried over onto the field, ASU under Graham has cleaned up those issues and currently ranks fourth in the nation for fewest penalties per game (3.63) and No. 8 in fewest penalty yards per game (31.88).

A fast, aggressive Devils defense has also forced a turnover in each of its last 22 games, which is the longest active streak among all FBS programs.

Erickson’s Utes offense will also need to put up a lot of points to stay ahead of a prolific ASU offense that has scored more than 50 points against each of  its last four Pac-12 opponents.  The Devils have been extremely successful with Graham’s hurry-up, high-octane offense that forces its opponents to make defensive adjustments on the fly.  Under Graham, nearly two-thirds of ASU’s 127 offensive scoring drives have come in three minutes or less.

ASU’s go-to running back, senior Marion Grice, is leading the nation with 13.5 points per game and is ranked fourth in rushing touchdowns with 12, which puts him on pace to break the record of 22 in a single season that was set back in 1950 by Wilford White.  And junior quarterback Taylor Kelly already has passed for 2,511 yards, which means he’s averaging 314 yards per game – which also puts him on track for breaking school records in both categories.  Kelly is ranked No. 5 nationally in passing and No. 7 in total offense.

On paper, Utah doesn’t appear to be much of a threat.  They’re 4-4 overall and fifth in the Pac-12 South division with a 1-4 conference mark.  The Utes are coming off of two consecutive losses and will have to depend on a defense that is tied for first place in the conference in sack average (3.38) to hold down the potent Sun Devil attack.

Utah has had little luck doing that over the years.  The Utes haven’t beaten ASU since 1976, when the teams played against each other as members of the WAC Conference.

And it’s hard to make any predictions based on this year’s common opponents.  ASU lost to Stanford and beat USC, while Utah beat Stanford and lost to USC.

However, that stunning upset of Stanford, which was ranked No. 5 in the country at the time, is what keeps Graham and his staff focused on this game, rather than looking past it to bigger challenges that await against Oregon State, UCLA, and Arizona.

The Sun Devils couldn’t beat Stanford.  But Utah found a way to do it.

And if there’s someone out there who knows what it will take for Utah to do the same thing to the Sun Devils, why wouldn’t it be their old ball coach?

(Photo: ASU Athletics)