Last week, No. 22 Arizona State proved it could win a game on the road under challenging circumstances, beating Washington State 55-21. This week, the competition and circumstances are a whole lot tougher.
ASU travels to Salt Lake City to face Pac-12 South foe Utah, which comes in after a bye week that was preceded by a two-game losing streak. But the Utes' 4-4 record belies the way they have played at Rice-Eccles Stadium. After taking then-No. 12 UCLA to the wire, Utah upset then-No. 5 Stanford to cap two strong performances at home. Back-to-back road losses followed.
ASU rides a three-game winning streak into Utah and looks to maintain control of its own destiny in the South. The Sun Devils will surely encounter a more capable offense against the Utes as well as a more hostile stadium environment.
FOXSportsArizona.com's ASU writer Tyler Lockman and UteSportsReport.com publisher Brian Swinney cover these teams daily. Here, they break down Saturday's game via five key questions. They can be followed on Twitter @TylerLockman and @BSwinneyScout.
1. ASU showed last week it can go into a somewhat difficult road setting and win a game. Salt Lake City should provide a tougher test. UCLA struggled at Rice-Eccles Stadium and Stanford lost there, so Utah's home-field advantage clearly means something. How much impact might that have on this game?
Lockman: The setting in Pullman last week was far, far from what it was expected to be. From poor attendance to reasonable weather, it just wasn't the test ASU expected it to be. This game might make up for it. Rice-Eccles has a reputation for getting loud and affecting visitors -- just ask Stanford. That should, at the very least, make it tougher for ASU to find a rhythm early in the game, if not keep them off-balance at times throughout. I think the atmosphere will have an impact on ASU, but not enough to stop the rampaging offense, and perhaps only for the first quarter or so.
Swinney: Rice-Eccles Stadium has a huge impact. I feel like it's worth about 10 points per game for the Utes, which is a ton. The fans are crazy, and it's a really loud place to play. If this game was in Tempe, I'd pick the Sun Devils to win handily without questioning it. At home, Utah is a different team. Maybe it's the elevation or the cold weather that we're working our way into, but teams often struggle when coming to Salt Lake City.
2. ASU has perhaps the hottest offense in the Pac-12 right now, having eclipsed 50 points in three straight games. Utah has a top-five rushing defense in the league, which could be a problem for ASU. What is one thing the team you cover does that could create problems for its opponent? What could be its advantage?
Lockman: ASU's aggressive style on defense is exactly the kind of matchup Utah doesn't want to face right now. It attacks relentlessly, getting after the quarterback as well as anyone in the Pac-12 and playing tight but disciplined defense down the field. If ASU gets to Travis Wilson enough, he'll start making mistakes the way he did against UCLA. Given Wilson's six interceptions that game, it's hard to believe Utah only lost by a touchdown. And it's hard to imagine that happening against ASU considering the Sun Devils are outscoring opponents 81-35 in points off turnovers this season. If ASU forces enough turnovers, this game could get out of hand.
Swinney: Utah has a front seven that plays sound football. The athleticism is still average or worse relative to the rest of the conference, but they've got a lot of size and strength up front. Trevor Reilly is an animal and an All-Pac 12 guy. Tenny Palepoi will be playing on Sundays next year. If the line can shut down the run and get pressure on the quarterback like they did against USC, it will give them a chance. They'll just need the corners to step up, play tighter to the line, and come up with an interception or two to make it all worthwhile.
3. Taylor Kelly is coming off perhaps his best game of the season and has been hurting teams more lately with his legs. Travis Wilson started strong and has been hampered by injuries the last few games but should be healthy after a bye week. All things considered, which QB's performance will have the most impact on this game?
Lockman: Kelly has certainly been beating teams lately, especially with his legs and a wickedly effective zone read, but he has tools around him -- namely running back Marion Grice -- that can get the job done as well. So I'm going with Travis Wilson. Getting healthy should help Wilson regain some of his early-season form, but it won't matter if he turns the ball over. He also doesn't have as much to work with as Kelly, though receiver Dres Anderson has been impressive. If Wilson takes care of the ball and finds enough weaknesses in the ASU defense, he'll be the difference in the Utes having the chance for an upset, although even then, he'll have to outplay Kelly. If his performance goes the other way, ASU should have no trouble keeping Utah off the board.
Swinney: Wilson will have the bigger impact on the game. Whether that is a positive impact remains to be seen. If he can't play an above-average game, Utah has little to no chance. Kelly can play average or worse and the Sun Devils can still win. Wilson is the more important player on Saturday because his play means more to his team's success.
4. With Oregon, Washington State and Colorado left to play after ASU, Utah should still be able to get bowl eligible, but a loss to the Sun Devils might have the Utes facing a .500 season. ASU, meanwhile, looks to maintain control of the Pac-12 South entering the final stretch. In the big picture, to which team does a win mean more this week?
Lockman: A .500 season ought to put Kyle Whittingham firmly on the hot seat entering 2014, but a seven-win season would probably do the same. And Utah should be able to win two more after this game, so it looks more important to ASU. The Sun Devils continue to play with a "single-elimination" mindset, worrying only about their result and the fact that continued winning keeps them in control of their own destiny. A loss would just increase the pressure leading up to a home game with Oregon State and a huge matchup with UCLA on the road. A win keeps ASU comfortably in control, and this could be a dress rehearsal of sorts for what's sure to be a tough road game in Los Angeles.
Swinney: At this point, Utah will take .500 on the year. The game at Oregon is almost certainly a loss, while the Colorado game is probably a win. That makes it a two-game season for the Utes to get one more victory. Even though it is on the road, you'd have to think that Utah will have a better shot at Washington State than at home against the Sun Devils. In the grand scheme of things, this game has to mean more to Arizona State. They control their destiny in the South but still have to travel to UCLA in a battle that will probably decide the division. To keep the momentum going and to keep the Bruins in the rearview mirror, the Devils need this one more.
5. Who will win this game, by what score, and why?
Lockman: I can see why some think this game will be close -- the atmosphere, mainly -- but I'm not buying it. ASU's offense is just playing too well right now, and the defense is catching up. I don't think the Utah defense, ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in points allowed and ninth in yards allowed, has what it takes to slow Kelly, Grice, Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell also seems to have a couple new tricks each week. Between that offense and the turnovers I believe ASU will force, I can't see Utah keeping this one close for much more than a half. I'm going with the Sun Devils by a score of 45-21.
Swinney: Arizona State wins this game. We've got two teams going in different directions right now, and I don't see any reason that won't continue. Utah will keep it close, but the Sun Devils have too many athletes and are playing too well for the Utes to slow down their offense enough to win. Arizona State 30, Utah 24.