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Making statements: Utes, Sun Devils look to take major step in division title race

Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (20) trips up Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) and prevents him from going out of bounds near the end of the first half of an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (20) trips up Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) and prevents him from going out of bounds near the end of the first half of an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (Colter Peterson, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — It's a feast or famine series.

When it comes to Arizona State and Utah meeting on the field, the last five game haven't been particularly close. The win margin for either team over the last five meetings (Utah holds a 3-2 lead over that period) has been no less than 16 points, with an average win margin of 19 over that same period.

In 2019, which is the last time the two programs met since COVID-19 disrupted a potential meeting in 2020, Utah won by 18 points and held then-freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels to only 25 yards and one interception on 4-of-18 passing.

The San Bernardino, California, native who was expected to sign with the Utes before an 11th-hour switch to the Sun Devils was sacked three times and held to just 8 yards on 16 rushing attempts on the night in the loss. It was a rough meeting for the freshman against the No. 3 defense in the country.

But with the South division title essentially on the line Saturday (8 p.m. MT, ESPN), all of that will be on Daniels' mind when he returns to Utah for the first time since that first meeting in 2019.

"They're solid across the board: quarterback is dynamic, very balanced on offense, good running back, good receiving core, offensive line is playing well, defensively they're playing well," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "There really is not any weakness that you can really pick apart. We've got to play exceptional football this weekend and it should be hopefully a great matchup."

The Sun Devils enter Rice-Eccles Stadium with a No. 18 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 and a 5-1 overall record (3-0 Pac-12), and a clear path to a South division title with a win over the Utes on their home turf. As the only two remaining teams with an unbeaten record in Pac-12 play, Saturday becomes a statement game of sorts for either program.

It's an opportunity for the Utes to bounce back from a 1-2 start to the season that was marred by offensive woes and prove that a blowout win against a down USC team was no fluke. A win over Arizona State would go a long way to establish Utah's spot in the Pac-12 as it takes a big step forward toward a third division title in four seasons.

For the Utes to do that, though, they'll have to maintain it's level of play on offense while improving on defense, especially against a slippery quarterback like Daniels who can extend plays with his feet.

The Sun Devils convert 52.1% of its third downs, the seventh best in the country, on 71 attempts, which is in large part due to Daniels being able to escape the pocket and pick up on first downs. This season, Utah is allowing opponents a third-down conversion of 36.7%, good for 58th best in the country.

Utah was able to effectively limit Daniels two season ago, but a lot has change in those two years, in particular for Daniels and his "maturity" process.

"He has two more years of experience, that's probably the biggest thing — his style of play has not changed," Whittingham said. "He's very dynamic and able to make plays with his legs. He can extend the play as good as any quarterback in the country, and he's a good thrower as well — he's a true dual threat.

"He's an outstanding player and we're going to have to have an answer for him."

The Sun Devils under Daniels have a balanced attack and average 33.3 points per game on an average of 213.0 rushing yards and 228.7 passing yards. To beat Arizona State, Utah has to be assignment sound, which is an area that Utah has spent extra focus this week after allowing USC 493 yards of total offense.

Whittingham said the team's "inability to make enough plays on the ball up the field" was a big reason for the team's struggle. And while that would seem to point to an inexperienced secondary giving up too many plays, Whittingham said it's on the whole team to do more.

"We've got to do a better job disrupting the quarterback with our defensive line, getting them knocked off his spot and not letting him sit back there and get comfortable, and then the under coverage by the backers, so it all ties together," Whittingham said. "So when I say not making enough plays up the field, it's not just one issue with that."

Utah's defensive performance against the Trojans may be an outlier — Pro Football Focus graded Utah's defense against USC its second-lowest grade of the season at 65.7, just slightly better than a 63.8 grade against BYU — but Whittingham's point remains that the defense must improve to limit a good Sun Devils team.

But as good as the Sun Devils have been this season, much of their success will come down to discipline in a hostile environment. Much like Arizona State found out in its last road trip to the state of Utah in September in a loss to BYU, penalties can derail success.

The Sun Devils are one of the most penalized teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision — the team ranks 125th out of 130 teams — with an average of nine penalties per game for an average of 85.5 yards per game. In a matchup that Las Vegas is calling an "even" game, where no team is favored, penalties could be a deciding factor.

To Utah's credit, they're the ninth-best team in the country in penalties per game at 4.2 for an average of 38.2 yards.

Whether penalties will be the determining factor in a series defined as of late by the double-digit margin, it's a chance for both teams to stake their claim in the South division. Whether it will be another feast or famine meeting, or a close contest down to the wire will be learned Saturday night in a vital game for both programs.

How to watch, stream and listen to the game

No. 18 Arizona State (5-1, 3-0) at Utah (3-2, 2-0)

Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, UT

Kickoff: 8 p.m. MT

TV: ESPN (Dave Flemming, Rod Gilmore, Stormy Buonantony)

Radio: ESPN 700 (Bill Riley, Scott Mitchell) or listen online via the TuneIn app or on Sirius XM — Sirius (108), XM (197) and internet (959)

Series: ASU leads 22-9 (In Salt Lake City, ASU leads 7-5)

Stadium incentives: In an effort to get fans in the stands earlier for an 8 p.m. kickoff for the annual Ute Proud game, Utah is offering 30% off all concession sales from 6-7 p.m.

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