There really is no weakness. They’ve got a lot of things going for them. They’re playing very well right now. They’re in first place in the south, and they are, right now, a very hot team. —Kyle Whittingham, Utah coach
SALT LAKE CITY — Now comes the pivotal season-ending stretch for the Utah Utes. Needing two wins in their final four games to become bowl eligible, the quest to do so begins Saturday at home against 23rd-ranked Arizona State. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m.
The Pac-12 South division-leading Sun Devils (6-2, 4-1) present quite a challenge. They’re currently ranked second in the conference in total offense (515.1 ypg) and total defense (343.4 ypg).
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has repeatedly called them a “complete team.”
ASU’s offense is led by quarterback Taylor Kelly, running back Marion Grice and wide receiver Jaelan Strong; the defense is headlined by linebacker Chris Young, defensive end Carl Bradford and defensive tackle Will Sutton; kicker Zane Gonzalez is the special-teams standout.
“There really is no weakness. They’ve got a lot of things going for them. They’re playing very well right now,” Whittingham said. “They’re in first place in the south, and they are, right now, a very hot team. They’re coming into Rice-Eccles, which is a positive for us. We’ve got them at home, but it’s going to take our best effort in the game this weekend."
The Utes have plenty of motivation on their side. Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, they’ve dropped two games to ASU by a combined score of 72-21.
“We owe these guys,” said senior captain Trevor Reilly.
More important, though, is Utah’s determination to avoid a second consecutive losing season and earn a bowl bid.
“Sounds like last year a little bit,” Reilly said. “We were at a crossroads at about this point and we didn’t come through, so we need to do that this year.”
The Utes wound up going 5-7 in 2012, losing two of their last three games to miss out on a bowl opportunity.
Besides home games against ASU and Colorado, this year’s season-ending schedule includes road trips to nationally ranked Oregon (coming off a stinging 26-20 loss at Stanford on Thursday) next week and then a visit to Washington State.
“As we all know, we’re trying to work for a bowl game, we have four games left and we have to win at least two of those games to go to a bowl game. But the mindset now is why not win all four?” said linebacker Jason Whittingham. “And it’s definitely a possibility right now. So we’re just trying to stick together, come together as a family and really focus on these last four games and get these seniors to a bowl game.”
His coach uncle, Kyle Whittingham, said everything has been good as far as the team’s attitude and work ethic. However, he isn’t looking too far ahead. As usual, he’s taking things one game at a time.
“We’ve got Arizona State this week and they are a darn good football team,” the coach said. “They’re playing as good as anyone in the conference right now and so we’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game.”
Quarterback Travis Wilson is confident the Utes can get it done against the Sun Devils.
“I think if we execute and if our offense plays how we know how to play, I think they’re definitely beatable. We’ve just got to make sure that we start fast,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to make sure that the defense stays off the field as much as they can.”
EXTRA POINTS: Arizona State leads the all-time series with Utah by an 18-6 margin. The Sun Devils have won the last nine meetings. ... At the end of the first quarter, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch will present a medal to World War II POW Lt. Col. Grant Keeler as part of the game’s “Salute America” festivities. ... Fans are encouraged to wear red, white and blue. ... The MUSS and the Alumni Association will be collecting donations for the Utah Food Bank outside the stadium and in the tailgate lot.