ASU Football: Sun Devils expecting physical game against No. 15 Utah

PASADENA, CA - OCTOBER 26: Zack Moss #2 and Tyler Huntley #1 of the Utah Utes celebrate after a touchdown in the second half at the Rose Bowl on October 26, 2018 in Pasadena, California. Utah won 41-10. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - OCTOBER 26: Zack Moss #2 and Tyler Huntley #1 of the Utah Utes celebrate after a touchdown in the second half at the Rose Bowl on October 26, 2018 in Pasadena, California. Utah won 41-10. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images) /

The challenges of containing Zack Moss and attacking a rugged front seven will test the physicality of ASU football come Saturday afternoon.

The biggest days of Arizona State’s season are ahead – but that didn’t stop defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales from basking in a holiday tradition.

“Last night, we carved pumpkins,” said Gonzales following ASU’s Halloween practice. “Pumpkin carving night at the house with the kids, so that was fun. Always got to separate some time for them.”

The comment elated smiles and laughter from those present in the Sun Devil media room. For the coach, it was a confession of relief.

Seven weeks ago, the Sun Devils found home in a recurrent cycle. It began on Sept. 15, when they came two plays short from a 3-0 start against San Diego State. The difference? Seven points.

For three of the next five games, the margin became a curse. Each time, a new mental error would dismiss another victory. With a 3-4 record and sitting at the cellar of the Pac-12 South, an escape from the purgatory seemed improbable.

But after Saturday’s 38-35 victory over USC, a win that snapped the second-longest home winning streak in the FBS and freed the Sun Devils from the curse of road defeats, Gonzales found a moment to relax.

So did quarterback Manny Wilkins.

“I kind of just chilled out,” he said. “I wasn’t as ‘up’ in pregame and everything. I was level-headed and I was just so focused.”

As the team reaches positivity, the tasks become even taller. This weekend, the Sun Devils face “the hottest team in our league” in Gonzales’ eyes, Utah, who rose to the top of the South in a dominant October month.

In four games, the Utes rewired their once stagnant offense, averaging 41 points with a differential of nearly 24.

The month included breakout stretches for running back Zack Moss, who rushed for 144 yards per game, and quarterback Tyler Huntley, who contributed nine touchdowns in the four wins.

Due to threats on the ground and in play action, Gonzales and coach Herm Edwards relayed a similar message to their team this week.

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“We got to have clean eyes because of how they run the ball,” Edwards said. “You got to understand who you have, what’s your gap responsibilities. If you miss one, it becomes a big run.”

“It’s a lot of misdirection to try and get you looking somewhere else, and then [they] hit you up the gut,” Gonzales said. “If you’re not disciplined with your eyes, they can get some really big plays on you.”

Against USC, the Sun Devils neutralized those plays. They didn’t give up more than 65 yards to any Trojan running back, forcing their opponent to rely on the arm of Jack Sears in his first career start.

In spite of the success, Gonzales expects Saturday’s game to liken the team’s loss to Stanford, where the Cardinal’s aggressive running contributed to two of their touchdowns in the third quarter.

“If we can get in their backfield and get some negative plays, then we’ll have a chance to stop them,” Gonzales said. “That’s going to be the key – play aggressive.

“It’s going to be physical. It is the type of football game that I like to watch. It’s what I like to be a part of.”

Offensively, the Sun Devils hope to find a similar tone to their last performance. Against USC, Wilkins pitched one of his most efficient games of the season, connecting with six different receivers for 166 yards and picking up 89 with his legs.

In order to have that success, Eno Benjamin will need to open up. The sophomore recently rushed over 100 yards for the fourth time in five games, but he may face his greatest challenge yet this weekend.

Through eight games, the Utes have only allowed 81 rushing yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry. Their focus will undoubtedly be on him.

Before facing a rugged defense, Edwards is reminding his team to stay the course in times of possible despair.

“We can’t get caught up if we have to punt the ball,” Edwards said. “Their defense is good enough to say, we have to punt the ball sometimes. You can’t panic about that. You can’t get away from your plan.”

With four games remaining, the Sun Devils carry a slim chance of a Pac-12 South title. A win this weekend is crucial, and if they can build on it, they could still accomplish their goal of a conference championship.

This is odd to say after what’s transpired. But now, there’s a chance for positive outcome. This is the time to hope for the best.

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“We couldn’t be in a better position with the record that we have,” Wilkins said. “It’s on us. We shouldn’t have to say much. Our team knows the importance of it.”

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.