SALT LAKE CITY — Arizona State has quietly emerged as the top defensive team in the Pac-12.
The 18th-ranked Sun Devils (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12) head into Saturday’s game at Utah leading the league in several key defensive categories.
They rank first in scoring defense (16.2 points per game), total defense (299.0 yards per game), sacks (21) and tackles for loss (43).
In a 28-10 win over Stanford, Arizona State allowed just 13 rushing yards – the fewest against a Sun Devils defense since 2018.
With an unmatched ability to pressure quarterbacks and stifle opposing offenses, Arizona State seems poised to make a run at a conference title. Sun Devils coach Herm Edwards believes his players can do big things if they keep doing the right things.
‘I’m on the journey with them,’ Edwards said. ‘I can give them a roadmap. They got to drive the car.’
In Utah, the Sun Devils face a team that’s also been coming on strong after beating USC 42-26 last week.
The Utes (3-2, 2-0) earned their first true road win over the Trojans since 1916 behind a reinvigorated passing attack. Cameron Rising threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns on 22-of-28 passing, marking his first career 300-yard game.
It was also the first 300-yard passing game for Utah against a Pac-12 opponent on the road since tallying 311 at Colorado in 2014.
The Utes have become more dynamic on offense since Rising replaced Charlie Brewer as the starting quarterback after a 1-2 start. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he is exactly the type of leader the Utes want at that position.
‘He is an alpha dog,’ Whittingham said. ‘He’s a leader in every sense of the word. He does command the room and he’s the leader of the offense.’
Arizona State and Utah are the only Pac-12 teams that remain undefeated in league play. The Sun Devils have matched their best start under Edwards and are seeking to improve to 4-0 in league play for the first time since 2007. The Utes are looking to move to 3-0 in the Pac-12 for the first time since 2015.
Utah changed its practice schedule this week so the entire team could fly to Mesquite, Texas, on Monday to attend Aaron Lowe’s funeral. Several teammates, Whittingham, and cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah spoke at the service, which was attended by more than 800 people. Lowe was shot and killed at a house party in Salt Lake City on Sept. 25.
“It was good to see them get up and be able to express themselves,’ Whittingham said. ‘That’s not an easy thing. It’s tough emotionally. I thought they all handled it well and did a good job.’
Arizona State piled up 255 yards on the ground and three rushing touchdowns against Stanford. It was the sixth time in nine games dating back to the start of the 2020 season that the Sun Devils surpassed 200 rushing yards as a team and the 10th straight game they have rushed for at least 150 yards.
Rachaad White has been a consistent contributor in the backfield for Arizona State and ranks fourth in the Pac-12 with 427 total rushing yards.
‘I think what we’ve been able to do is we don’t give up on it,’ Edwards said. ‘We just continue to try to run and, eventually, if you do that, it’s going to pay dividends for you.’
Tavion Thomas likely secured a bigger role for himself in Utah’s backfield after rushing for a career-high 113 yards and a touchdown against USC. Thomas averaged 7.1 yards per carry and gave the Utes running attack a spark that had been missing at times early in the season.
For Thomas, who had his second career 100-yard game, his performance against USC represented a comeback after he was effectively benched earlier in the season. The sophomore back fell out of the rotation after struggling to hold on to the ball. Thomas had two total carries against San Diego State and Washington State.
Utah and Arizona State carry five-game winning streaks against Pac-12 opponents into Saturday’s game. Each team has been dominant in those victories. The Sun Devils won their five contests by an average of 27 points per game. The Utes have beaten their last five league opponents by an average margin of 13.4 points.
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