Confidence is a big deal and they’re going to show up with their ‘A’ game. That’s what we expect. —Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — As if things weren’t tough enough following two straight losses, the Utah Utes have something else to contend with Saturday afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium: Confidence.
Arizona State has plenty of it after last week’s 13-7 upset of previously unbeaten Washington. The Sun Devils are riding high.
“They’ve got to feel real positive about their game against the Huskies and that’s a big deal,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “Confidence is a big deal and they’re going to show up with their ‘A’ game. That’s what we expect.”
Whittingham noted that Arizona State played great defense in the win over Washington. Linebacker Christian Sam, who leads the Pac-12 in tackles, made 11 stops to headline an effort that kept Washington quarterback Jake Browning (139 yards passing) and running back Myles Gaskin (67 yards rushing) in check.
"They had great pressure on the quarterback first and foremost,” Whittingham said of an Arizona State defense that netted nine tackles for loss and five sacks. “They hadn't given up less than 30 points in any of their last five games, so it was a complete turnaround on how they played on defense.”
As for the offense, Whittingham said the Sun Devils have playmakers. Quarterback Manny Wilkins is among the nation’s top passers and receiver N’Keal Harry is a top target with 7.2 catches per game.
Everything came together on the field in Tempe. Whittingham pointed out that the Sun Devils were juiced up and excited.
“It is such a game of emotion and that is one example right there on how your mental state of mind and preparedness is so key in football,” he said. “It is huge. They were ready.”
Shift to the Utes. They return home after a heartbreaking 28-27 loss at USC. A failed two-point conversion with 42 seconds remaining sealed the outcome. A week earlier, they dropped a 23-20 decision at home to Stanford.
The slide has Utah (4-2, 1-2) in a precarious position as far as the Pac-12 South race is concerned. A loss to Arizona State (3-3, 2-1) would really put the Utes in a bad spot.
Utah enters what could be a very pivotal contest with questions to be answered. Injuries, although not of the season-ending variety, have taken a toll.
At quarterback it remains to be seen if sophomore Tyler Huntley, who has missed two consecutive starts with an undisclosed injury, will reclaim his starting job from senior Troy Williams this week.
If cleared to play, Huntley is eager to get back at it. He said he’s progessing and getting himself back together.
“I’m very itchy to get back because I hate losing,” Huntley continued. “But we’re all good. We just learned from two great games and we’re just going to come out firing.”
The run game is fresh off a strong outing. Sophomore running back Zack Moss rushed for a career-high 141 yards last week at USC.
Utah’s defense, meanwhile, enters the game in search of its first sack since the 30-24 win at Arizona on Sept. 22.
“It kind of goes hand-in-hand with losing our defensive ends,” said defensive line coach Lewis Powell, who has been dealing with injuries to starters Kylie Fitts and Bradlee Anae.
The Utes, Powell added, have also been dealing with protection schemes that have been a lot different. Opposing offenses have been mixing things up.
“But we’ve still got to get to the quarterback,” Powell said. “We’ve been working on it the last two weeks and hopefully we get some this week.”
EXTRA POINTS: Arizona State leads the all-time series 20-8. The Sun Devils hold a 4-2 edge since Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011 ... The Utes have prevailed in the past two meetings by a combined score of 83-44 ... This is Utah’s first “day” game of the season. The previous six games started at 5:30 p.m., and later.
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Utes on the air
Arizona State (3-3, 2-1)
at Utah (4-2, 1-2)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
Radio: ESPN 700AM