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Sun Devils and Utes meet in Pac-12 affair

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Updated: 11/06/2013 10:56 am

Salt Lake City, UT (SportsNetwork.com) - After steam rolling their way to three straight wins the No. 23 Arizona State Sun Devils will attempt to earn a fourth when they visit the upset-minded Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium for a Pac-12 duel.

There hasn't been much resistance facing Arizona State as it has risen into the national rankings for the second time this year. The Sun Devils routed Washington State in Pullman, 55-21, last Thursday after having posted huge wins over Colorado (54-13) and Washington (53-24) in the two previous weeks. Taylor Kelly accounted for seven touchdowns (five passing, two rushing) in the win over the Cougars as the Sun Devils moved to 6-2 overall and became bowl eligible for the third straight year.

"I'm not interested in that. We are interested in winning a championship," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said. "We are proud of (being bowl eligible) and it's not something we take for granted or (are) arrogant about. I don't talk about that."

Right now Arizona State is 4-1 in league play and in the mix to represent the Pac-12 South in the conference's title game.

Playing against a ranked team on their home field won't be a scary prospect for the Utes. After all Utah took down a top-10 Stanford squad, 27-21, at Rice-Eccles Stadium earlier in the season. However, since that victory the Utes have dropped back-to-back games, both on the road, with the most recent loss, a 19-3 setback against USC. Utah was absolutely dominated by the Trojans' defense as it had just 201 yards of total offense in the losing effort.

"One thing for certain is that the offensive line needs to play better. We didn't protect very well, we didn't run-block very well, we didn't take any stress off the quarterback with an effective run game," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said, while stressing that the struggles of starter Travis Wilson were not the lone reason for the loss. "It's not just the quarterback. There's a lot of things involved."

Utah owns a 4-4 overall record, but at just 1-3 against the conference, has slipped out of the Pac-12 North Division race.

This hasn't been a very competitive all-time series with Arizona State owning 18 wins in 24 meetings. That includes victories in the last nine matchups for the Sun Devils, who posted a 37-7 triumph in Tempe last year.

Kelly hasn't always been able to produce scores and yards at such an incredible rate as he did against Washington State, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been one of the more exciting offensive threats in the conference. Kelly has thrown for over 2,500 yards, with 23 touchdown passes, while completing an impressive 62.9 percent of his passes. Kelly also has the speed and skill to take off on his own as he has rushed for 315 yards and five more scores this season. Four of those touchdowns and 150 of those yards have come in the last two weeks.

Even though the Sun Devils absolutely crushed Washington State there was something off about their performance. Marion Grice did not find the end zone. Grice leads the country in total touchdowns with 18 (12 rushing, six receiving), but for the first time this season he did not manage a score. In all Grice has accounted for 647 yards rushing and another 333 through the air.

Grice and Kelly are not the only impressive offensive players for the Sun Devils. Jaelen Strong (49 receptions, 720 yards, five TDs) has proven to be an explosive receiver. D.J. Foster (43 receptions, 467 yards, three TDs) is a versatile talent that can take handoffs as well as haul in passes.

The Sun Devils aren't just an impressive offensive squad though. Arizona State is currently behind only USC among Pac-12 teams in total defense (343.4 ypg), giving up an average of 26 points per game.

Even though Whittingham wouldn't blame his quarterbacks outright for the loss to USC, there is no denying that Travis Wilson and Adam Schulz both failed to produce in the loss. Wilson got the start but was pulled for Schulz after being intercepted twice. Schulz finished with 79 yards on 7-of-17 passing and was intercepted once. Wilson has started in all eight games, but has been intercepted 14 times, which is the same number of touchdown passes he has. Wilson does provide more of a threat on the ground than Schulz with 342 yards and five rushing scores.

The Utes were dominated by the USC defense on the ground as well with leading rushers Bubba Poole (495 yards, TD) and Kevin York (198 yards, two TDs) held to just 40 yards combined on 13 carries. For two rushers that normally average better than four yards per carry, the effort was clearly a big step back.

In terms of pass-catchers, Poole (28 receptions, 227 yards) has really made his mark this year as he is second on the team in receptions. However, he has been more of a safety net than a down the field threat. Dres Anderson (33 receptions, 642 yards, five TDs) and Sean Fitzgerald (24 receptions, 376 yards, four TDs) fit more into that mold.

Against USC, Utah did show some promise on the defensive side, holding the Trojans to just 19 points and 260 yards of total offense. It was an impressive showing for a team that is allowing 35.8 points and 393.4 yards per game on average. Utah does create pressure, tied with Stanford for second in the Pac-12 in sacks (27). Leading the way is Trevor Reilly (69 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks), who paces the team in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and fumble recoveries.

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