The following article was prepared by staff writer Mike Slifer
In sizing up the match-up between Arizona State and Utah, one cannot avoid talking about the mental game. Focus, concentration and motivation are always a big part of college football. With that, there’s a lot going on here for both teams.
For Utah, this is basically a must-win situation. The Utes desperately want to go to a bowl game. With two more wins to get, they are running out of time—and home games. They really need this contest against ASU.
Utah should be extremely confident for a 4-4 team. They are coming off a bye, their quarterback’s hand injury has healed, and most of all, they know they play extremely well at home. After all, they did beat Stanford in Salt Lake City.
For Arizona State, they’ve just got to be themselves. That’s easier said than done. Last week in Pullman, fans and pundits were worried if the Sun Devils could rise up for a hyped-up Halloween prime time game against Washington State. They did. Now comes the hangover. ASU faces the exact opposite circumstances in Salt Lake City. It’s an afternoon game that most of the country won’t see. It’s against an “average” team the Devils always beat. There’s no prime time coverage, no rivalry, no real hype.
On top of that, ASU has some other distractions going on. First, the team has to deal with its athletic director, Steve Patterson, leaving for Texas. You wouldn’t think this development would have an impact on the players — and it shouldn’t — but it might, especially with the speculation about coach Todd Graham going to Texas with Patterson. The situation might even distract the coaches a bit.
And then there’s the fact that former ASU head coach Dennis Erickson will be on the sideline for Utah. It’s hard to predict what effect his presence will have on the game. Erickson recruited most of the starters for the Sun Devils. Whether these players will be intimidated by or driven to impress “Coach E” remains to be seen. But rest assured, just the fact that they are thinking about Erickson and paying attention to him is a distraction.
With the mental aspect out of the way, here are some “on the field” keys to victory:
1. Confuse Travis Wilson
Coach Graham and his staff would be wise to attack Utah quarterback Travis Wilson the same way they attacked Washington State QB Connor Halliday. ASU should use “nickel” and “dime” packages in various ways to make Wilson’s pre-snap reads difficult. Halliday himself said, “Arizona State might be the best team I’ve seen—coverage-wise.” ASU should also bring lots of line stunts, twists and blitzes to throw off Wilson, the offensive line and any running back staying in to block. Bottom line: Wilson needs to react to the ASU defense, not the other way around.
2. Take Away the Slant/Dig Routes
It might be nit picking here, but ASU has given up a slant route and a dig route that went for a touchdown the last two games. These routes are not typically big scoring pass plays; they are designed to pick up 6-12 yards for a first down. However, the Sun Devil safeties and other secondary defenders have taken poor angles that allowed those receptions to go all the way to the house. Be advised, Utah will try to exploit this weakness. The Sun Devils had better learn their lesson on defending these types of routes.
3. Look for Mismatches in Slot and Trip Formations
Arizona State should try to exploit the match-ups in multiple receiver sets, especially linebackers covering receivers/running backs. The Utah linebackers are tough, but they don’t quite have the athleticism to run with good skill players. ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell needs to keep a close eye on who is opposite D.J. Foster/Marion Grice/Deantre Lewis when they line up out wide.
4. Let Taylor Kelly Run the Ball
This might seem obvious. After all, as Sun Devil QB, Taylor Kelly has run the ball a lot more in the last three blowout victories. He should continue doing so. Kelly needs to keep doing a good job with the zone read play and tuck it and run when necessary. Some QB draws/counters might be in order against Utah, especially on first down. Utah does appear to blitz a lot on obvious passing downs, but otherwise, they drop a lot in coverage and their linebackers bail out pretty quickly. Designed runs for Kelly, or even scrambles for positive yardage, could be a backbreaker for Utah.
5. Keep Improving on Special Teams
This was once a huge problem for ASU, but over the last two games, its special teams units have been much improved. Field position always favors the home team. The Sun Devils have to be sharp on kickoff/punt coverage. And on returns, they need to avoid getting buried deep in their own territory.
To close, in all statistical categories, Utah is an average team. But they are not average when they play at home in Salt Lake City. In fact, the Utes are two plays away from being 6-2 (at home vs. Oregon St./UCLA). Their defense is tough. It rallies to the ball and is especially good in the red zone. Utah is also better in the skill positions than it has been in the recent past.
This is a dangerous game for ASU. Utah is hungry and plays ridiculously well in front of its own fans. The Utes are not Colorado, nor are they Washington State. The Sun Devils better show up motivated and prepared or they will get beat. The team leaders must do whatever it takes to get focused and play their very best on Saturday.