ASU vs. #4 Utah…the new ‘Biggest Game of the Year’

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                </div>  On September 26, Arizona State was embarrassed in front of a home crowd at Sun Devil Stadium when USC departed Tempe with a 42-14 road win to leave the […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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On September 26, Arizona State was embarrassed in front of a home crowd at Sun Devil Stadium when USC departed Tempe with a 42-14 road win to leave the Sun Devils with a disappointing  2-2 start to the season.

On that same Saturday, the University of Utah stunned the college football world by going on the road and blowing away Oregon, 62-20.

If odds were drawn up on the Sunday after those games for a match-up between these two teams, what kind of odds would the Sun Devils have been given?  Not a pretty image.

But what a difference a few more games made… ASU (4-2, 2-1) goes into tonight’s 7 p.m. game with the Utes (5-0, 2-0) at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City a one-touchdown underdog.  If the game were in Tempe, the odds-makers might have even called this one a toss-up.

A huge upset of then-No. 7 UCLA a couple of games ago had to be considered the biggest win of the season for the Sun Devils because it put a team struggling to find its identity back on the path to becoming the high-achievers its fans were expecting this year.  It renewed hope in its fan base and put the swagger back in its step.

But tonight’s game could be even bigger, for a number of reasons.

A WIN WOULD set this team apart from other Pac-12 teams of the current era.  The Devils would become the first Pac-12 team in almost a quarter of a century (1991) to beat two top-10 teams on the road in the same season.  It would also become the first team in school history to beat two top-10 teams in the regular season.

A WIN WOULD be a big step toward the South Division title, moving them into first place with just one loss. Utah, the last remaining undefeated team in the Pac-12, also plays in the South Division.

A WIN WOULD make ASU an attractive bowl selection and, if they can hold out the rest of the schedule and solidify the national ranking they will likely receive come Monday, could get them an invite from a top-tier bowl.

The Sun Devils are used to having their way with the Utes, winning the last 11 times they’ve met. Utah’s last win against ASU was back in 1977.

However, it’s been much more difficult to post those wins in recent years, with ASU’s 19-16 win last year in Tempe decided on a field goal in overtime.  Utah came into that game ranked 18th nationally.  The year before, on the road, it took an interception in the final minute to hold on for a 20-19 ASU win.

And success this year will be even more difficult.  In order to pocket this win, the Sun Devils have to find a way to contain Utes running back Devontae Booker who is averaging 133 rushing yards a game, which makes him the second-most productive back in the conference and the ninth-best in the nation.

Booker ran for 222 yards last week against then-No. 23 California.  How’s that for scary good?

Another unsettling thought: Utah collected 16 first-place votes in this week’s polling to compile the AP Top 25 – more than any other team except top-ranked Ohio State.

This game is going to come down to which team can maintain defensive control, which team can hold on to the ball, and which team makes the fewest mistakes.

ASU’s defense is one of the most aggressive in the country and likes to bring a ton of pressure defensively.  But Utah counters with an offensive line that protects its quarterback, allowing just two sacks all season.

The Utes rank 21st in the country in fewest penalty yards per game with 42.  But ASU plays an even cleaner game, ranked seventh at 35.8 yards per game; they’ve been flagged for just 18 total penalties over six games.

Utah is tied for No. 1 in the nation for turnover margins, with plus-2.  ASU is sixth with a .72 average turnover margin per game.

These are two disciplined, well-coached teams.  Don’t look for a lot of high scoring tonight.

But do look for an upset that will find a place in the ASU history books and propel the Sun Devils into the second half of the season on a trajectory toward the South Division crown.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)