ARIZONA STATE FOOTBALL

ASU football will have hands full defensively with stout No. 13 Utah offense

Sep 22, 2022, 1:38 PM | Updated: Sep 23, 2022, 11:03 am
Tight end Gunnar Oakes #82 of the Eastern Michigan Eagles makes a reception against the Arizona Sta...
Tight end Gunnar Oakes #82 of the Eastern Michigan Eagles makes a reception against the Arizona State Sun Devils during the first half of the NCAAF game at Sun Devil Stadium on September 17, 2022 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

TEMPE — The Arizona State Sun Devils defense will once again have its hands full with another stout offensive unit in the No. 13 Utah Utes.

Utah will be coming into Tempe on Saturday night tied with No. 2 Alabama for the 27th-best offense in the country in terms of total yards gained (480.7 yards per game).

In three games, the Utes have compiled a total of 1,442 yards on 210 plays for an average of 6.87 yards per play, which ranks tied for 24th in the nation. Utah’s 17 touchdowns thus far on the 2022 season are also tied for the 12th-most in college football.

“They’ve got a great team. Up front they’re stout, they’re physical. They have great physical backs. Their tight ends are physical, they can run routes, they’re versatile,” ASU linebacker Kyle Soelle said on Tuesday. “They have a great quarterback. Just like kind of an Oklahoma State-type, they make you play 11-on-11 football so we have to do a great job on our end preparing for them and take it day by day.”

The Sun Devils will have three major threats that defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson and Co. will have to gameplan for. Those three Utes are tight end Brant Kuithe, running back Tavion Thomas and quarterback Cam Rising, who Henderson compared to Oklahoma State QB Spencer Sanders prior to Arizona State’s Week 2 matchup in Stillwater, Okla.

Not to mention Utah boasts one of the best staffs in the country led by Kyle Whittingham, who is in his 18th year as head coach and 29th overall with the Utes.

“Well-coached, big, strong. … They’re going to come out and be physical, that’s just who they are,” Henderson said Tuesday. “They got skill at every position. … And then they have the guys who can come in as the jet sweep guys. … Offensive line, we’re going to get double-teamed, we’ll see how we play technique.”

The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Kuithe can line up as either a tight end or wide receiver and leads the team with 17 receptions, 191 yards and three touchdown catches, which have been split evenly at one game apiece. Meanwhile, the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Thomas leads the team with 222 rushing yards on 50 attempts (4.4 per rush) and four scores.

And then there’s the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Rising, who has proven he can hurt any team with both his arm and legs.

The dual-threat quarterback has been leaving most of the ground-game work to his tailbacks, having only posted 89 yards on 13 rushes (6.8 per carry) without a TD. But through the air, Rising has been more than efficient with an eight-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio to go along with a 67% completion percentage (57-for-85) and 694 passing yards (231.3 per game).

“When you got guys that are that good, in my mind there’s two ways of doing it: You can zone them and play over the top of them or you can get up there and try to hammer them and press them,” Henderson said.

“But understand those guys play too and they understand how they’re being played, so I think we have to show him different looks and the quarterback different looks and stay over the top at times. And then sometimes come down and press him and make him come off the line of scrimmage and try not to give him the vertical routes, make him have to go sideways to get in his routes.”

And after the 305 rushing yards (458 total) that Eastern Michigan put up on ASU last week, 258 of which came from RB Samson Evans, it should be no surprise to see Utah try to gouge Arizona State on the ground until the Sun Devils can prove they can stop it.

ASU now has the 54th-ranked defense in college football in total yards allowed (347.7 per game). However, the team’s run defense has fallen to No. 102 in the nation with opposing rushing attacks averaging 175 yards per contest.

“Once you put that on tape, people are going to see it. When you start getting your tail beat a little bit, you have to turn to something. What is that? And I always talk about technique,” Henderson said. “Trying to understand that you’re getting double-teamed and understanding what your leverage is and trying to fight and one guy isn’t trying to fight two and spin out of gaps and those types of things. …

“Now it’s up to us to figure out how we’re going to play the double-teams a little bit better. Backers get over the top, safeties come up and force — it’s a team sport now. … For us, it’s going to be a challenge and it’s going to be a challenge for the rest of the year — not just one game. We will be challenged in the run game from here on out, that’s what’s going to happen.”

CHIPS TO “AVENGE”

There’s never a shortage of self-motivation for college athletes, especially football players.

ASU senior captain left guard LaDarius Henderson, who started against Utah at left tackle as a 17-year-old freshman in 2019, said Tuesday that the team has a few chips on its shoulders going into its matchup against the Utes. Some of those include it being the first game under interim head coach Shaun Aguano following the departure of Herm Edwards, the opening contest of Pac-12 play, last year’s second-half collapse and a team Henderson just doesn’t care for all that much.

“I really don’t like Utah personally. … My teammates know that about me since I got here, it’s not my cup of tea,” he said. “They are physical, we’re definitely physical. They’re a disciplined team, I feel like that’s a lot of what makes them great and they’re a really good team. I’m not going to sit up here and tell you they’re not, because they are.

“I feel like, especially for me personally, we have chips to up here with these guys. … I feel like there’s a lot of things we want to avenge.”

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ASU football will have hands full defensively with stout No. 13 Utah offense