The Utes travel to Tempe, Ariz., to take on Arizona State in their first Pac-12 game of the year. The Sun Devils have a new coach and are off to a promising start, but suffered a heartbreaking loss to Missouri on the road last week.
So what can Ute fans expect Saturday night? We caught up with devilsdigest.com publisher Hod Rabino to get an inside look.
What has new coach Todd Graham brought to the Arizona State program? How is the program different than it was under Dennis Erickson?
If Arizona State wanted to go with someone 180 degrees different than Dennis Erickson, then I’d say mission accomplished. Coach Graham has brought about a very constructive change in team culture and has done real well in reaching out to the community like no coach has in recent memory.
He’s done everything right in the offseason, but we all know that it’s what a coach does in-season is how he’s judged. We’ll see soon enough how well this team performs under coach Graham, but the team has gotten off to a promising start. Fans are generally pleased with how the team performed against Northern Arizona and against Illinois and how it fought back against Missouri after digging a hole early.
I think what we’ve seen through three games in terms of wins and losses and with how the team competes is a testament to the changes coach Graham has brought to the program. The team is more disciplined and focused and doesn’t make a lot of the same stupid mistakes that it did the last two years.
How do Arizona State fans regard the Utah football program?
Arizona State fans think Utah came in with perhaps a little too much bravado without much to back it up, so when ASU went to Salt Lake City and won 35-7 it probably validated a lot of what fans were thinking.
When you look at it objectively though, Utah did not have a bad first year in the Pac-12. It got off to a bad start, but proved able to finish strong and fight back, so that was impressive to everyone who really follows the teams in the conference. I think that if Utah played ASU in late November instead of earlier in the year that the final outcome would have been much different.
I think people recognize that Utah has some good players and that the program they have there is much better than Colorado. Fans recognize that Utah is not a push-over and that it’s going to be a tough team to beat year-in and year-out.
What is Arizona State like on offense? Who are the primary play-makers?
Even though Graham was preaching a high-octane offense since he arrived, his offense has proven to be much different than the spread offense that was run here last year. The strong running game and the extensive use of a tight end have been the two biggest differences. In most weeks this offense will run at a 60/40 run-pass ratio. It’s an offense that likes to focus on downhill running without a lot of passes down the field.
The two newcomers at running back are probably the standouts so far this season. DJ Foster is one of the best prep running backs the state of Arizona has ever seen, and Marion Grice was one of the best junior college running backs last season and they’re both running very well. Chris Coyle has really taken advantage of the new offense and is playing great at the tight end position.
What is Arizona State like on defense? Who are the primary play-makers?
Even though coach Graham goes with multiple fronts, we’ve seen more of a 3-4 than a 4-3 so far this year. It’s a more aggressive defense and not so much of the read-and-react type defense that they were a year ago. The cornerbacks are usually on an island playing press man-on-man coverage, which is very different than what Arizona State has done.
As far as standouts go on defense, defensive tackle Will Sutton is a beast and at linebacker, junior college transfer Chris Young has really hit the ground running and has been a great play-maker. At defensive back, the two safeties, Keelan Johnson and Alden Darby, have really stood out in their ability to play both the run and the pass.
What is the game day environment like at ASU? What can visiting Ute fans expect?
It’s a bit of a hostile environment, but probably not to the level of what Utah will experience at Oregon or at Washington as far as Pac-12 teams go. Fans are anxious to get into Pac-12 play and want to get the taste of the loss to Missouri out of their mouths from last week. Utah fans can expect a rowdy environment, but an environment that is welcoming and largely respectful of its opponent.