Utah prepares for possible “offensive shootout” with ASU

This week the Utes face arguably their biggest test in the Pac-12 South when they head to Tempe, Ariz. to do battle with No. 14 Arizona State.

ASU is on a roll after suffering an early blowout defeat at home to UCLA back in September. Brett Hundley and the Bruin offense put up 48 points on the rebuilding Sun Devil defense on their way to a 62-27 hammering of the team some thought would be the Pac-12 South champions.

Since the UCLA loss, ASU has gone on a 3-0 stretch, including a Hail Mary win at USC, a home victory against previously 23rd-ranked Stanford and another road victory at Washington.

While not as effective as it was early in the season, the Sun Devil offense got back on track thanks to backup quarterback Mike Bercovici until starter Taylor Kelly was able to return from an ankle injury for the Washington game last week.

In his return, Kelly had an average night by his standards, completing 14-of-25 passes for 180 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. The big downside for Kelly last Saturday was his ineffectiveness at running the football. Only being able to manage a measly seven yards on 15 carries is not something a mobile quarterback likes to end a game with.

With not a whole lot of separation between the quarterbacks in recent weeks, one might think ASU head coach Todd Graham would have played the game Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham played a couple weeks ago in not naming a starting quarterback until close to game time. But Whittingham said he expects Kelly to take the field as the starter for the Sun Devils and that’s what his defense is preparing for.

“There’s not a marked difference in the quarterbacks, they both have thrown the ball well,” Whittingham said. “They run their offense well under both … but we fully expect to see Taylor Kelly, and that’s what we’re anticipating. If not, then there’s not a radical difference.”

As previously stated, the ASU defense is still in a rebuilding mode after losing players like defensive tackle Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford to the NFL draft earlier this summer, but the defense has stepped up in recent weeks. After allowing nearly 31 points per game through their first four games of the season, the Sun Devils are averaging only 18 points allowed per game in their last three, including only 10 points apiece in their last two games against north division foes Stanford and Washington.

“You can see the defense start to come of age as the season has gone on, and they’re getting back to playing their style of defense and getting results,” Whittingham said. “They’re playing like we’re used to seeing an Arizona State defense.”

Besides worrying about the Sun Devils, Whittingham has his own problems to deal with on his team. After narrowly escaping Rice-Eccles Stadium with a win against USC on Saturday, he pointed out the painful nature of that game.

“It was a very physical game and they’re a physical team, USC is,” Whittingham said. “We definitely took our bumps and bruises.”

No bump was worse than the loss of senior wide receiver Dres Anderson for the rest of the season to an undisclosed knee injury suffered late in the fourth quarter against the Trojans.

Without Anderson, quarterback Travis Wilson has temporarily lost his true deep threat at the receiver position and will need to rely on young and unproven players like former walk-on Tim Patrick, sophomore Delshawn McClellon and possibly freshman Kenric Young in addition to proven targets Kenneth Scott and Kaelin Clay.

While Whittingham believes his team is more able to absorb injuries like this than in recent years, there’s no doubt this one will hurt. The question is, how much?

“It’s still a work in progress. We need to continue to build depth, but we’re certainly more equipped to handle some of the rigors of the season than we have been in the past,” Whittingham said.

It would be one thing if Wilson and the offense had been playing consistently well before Anderson went down, but unfortunately for the Utes, pretty much the opposite has been going on. The offense showed signs of brilliance against USC at times, but its work was marred by costly turnovers that could have turned that game into a rout for Utah.

In a game against ASU that could turn into an offensive shootout, Wilson and company are going to need to be prepared to put points up early and often on the improving ASU defense.

“Whatever happens, happens, but our job on offense is to put points up on the board early,” Wilson said. “I just want our offense to start off fast and help our defense out a little bit more by putting points up.”

The good thing for Wilson and the offense seems to be that no matter how inept they look at times, they’re somehow able to pull themselves together and come up with a game winning drive late in the game. Wilson said the final two-minute offensive drive was something to build on for the offense.

“It was a good drive. It was something we practiced a lot, and I was happy with how well we executed,” Wilson said. “Now we just need to make sure we execute like that every time.”

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@TalonChappell