(18) Utah (6-1) at (15) Arizona State (6-1) (ET)
GAME NOTES: In a critical Pac-12 Conference clash, the 18th-ranked Utah Utes pay a visit to the 15th-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils.
Utah has gotten used to playing in tight games recently, with each of its last four decided by six points or less. The Utes have gone 3-1 during that stretch, while earning a 6-1 mark overall. Their 24-21 victory over USC last weekend was particularly thrilling, as Travis Wilson threw a one-yard touchdown pass to Kaelin Clay with just eight seconds to play.
Arizona State also enters this weekend with wins in three straight contests, all in league play. Last week's 24-10 victory over Washington was the most recent, putting the Sun Devils right in the thick of the Pac-12 title race, sporting a record of 4-1 against the rest of the league despite having suffered a 62-27 home loss to UCLA at the end of September. They are a perfect 4-0 on the road as well.
"Winning on the road means a lot because it means that we get to compete for a championship," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said, while looking ahead. "We have a heck of a football team coming in next week. We need every person on hand, it's a big game. The winner of next week's game controls their own destiny in the Pac-12."
Taylor Kelly ran and threw for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, as the Sun Devils rallied for a 20-19 win at Utah in last season's meeting. Arizona State has come out on top in each of the last 10 matchups, and leads the all-time series as a result, 19-6.
Although Wilson ended up being the hero against USC, he didn't have his most productive game of the season. The Utah quarterback completed 18-of-32 pass attempts, but for only 194 yards and the single touchdown, albeit an important one. His longest completion went for 18 yards.
"We knew we were going to score. We executed a play that was called really well and I'm glad that we got it into the end zone," Wilson said of the final drive against USC. "I don't feel that our offense has played our best game yet. I think that we did a lot of great things in the passing game though [tonight]. We still have a lot of improvements to make, but this is definitely one to enjoy."
Wilson isn't wrong. He has not had the same type of passing potency as other signal callers in the Pac-12, with only 1,027 yards and eight scores on 56.6 percent passing. However, his lack of fear when it comes to running and his skill in avoiding turnovers (zero interceptions) has kept Utah steady.
It helps that Wilson can turn around and hand the ball to Devontae Booker. Utah's workhorse running back has been a powerful force out of the backfield, rushing for 844 yards and eight touchdowns on 146 carries. No other back on the team has more than 40 attempts, although Wilson and sometimes-used backup quarterback Kendal Thompson each have at least 50. Booker is the only non- quarterback on the team averaging more than 100 total yards per game.
Kenneth Scott (25 receptions, 252 yards, three TDs) and Dres Anderson (22 receptions, 355 yards, four TDs) have the ability to pile up yards, but the limited passing attack has kept their production at bay.
In all, Utah is one of the better scoring teams in the conference, ranking fifth with 35.9 points per game. However, the Utes' overall offensive production is less impressive (392.3 ypg).
Putting up big offensive numbers isn't really necessary when you play the type of defense that Utah does. The Utes are behind only Stanford and Oregon State in the Pac-12 in total defense (376.9 ypg). They also are second in the league in scoring defense (21.6 ppg), while sitting at the very top of the nation in sacks (35), and third in tackles for loss (66).
Arizona State may have won last weekend, but it could have taken another loss at quarterback. Taylor Kelly, who returned to his post as starter, is once again questionable this weekend after taking a hit to the head near the end of the Washington game. Kelly only threw for 180 yards and two scores on 14-of-25 passing against the Huskies, but when healthy, he is the best option on the roster.
That does not mean that backup Mike Bercovici is a poor choice, after all, he has thrown for 1,322 yards and 10 touchdowns compared to only two interceptions, while going 2-1 as the starter.
Regardless of who is under center for Arizona State, it is clear that D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong will be the focal points of the offense. Foster, a running back, is extremely versatile, having rushed for 648 yards and six touchdowns, while ranking second on the team in both receptions (32) and receiving yards (424).
Strong is one of, if not the best receivers in the Pac-12, with 52 receptions, 744 yards and seven touchdowns to his credit. He was slowed a bit against the Huskies, with only 55 yards on three grabs. It was just the second time this season he has had fewer than six receptions.
Unlike Utah, Arizona State is more of a middle-of-the-road team defensively. The Sun Devils rank sixth in the Pac-12 in total defense (405.9 ypg) and fifth in points allowed (25.3 ppg). That's not to say they don't have strong players on that side of the ball, as Damarious Randall (66 tackles) and Jordan Simone (60 tackles, two INTs) both solid playmakers.
Even without Kelly, the Sun Devils should be fine, as Bercovici has the experience and skill to keep them humming on offense. However, Utah's powerful defensive front can cause problems for even the most seasoned quarterback. Expect the Utes to maintain pressure, both on the passer and on the scoreboard, but for Arizona State to pull out the win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Arizona State 26, Utah 20