Utes treating Sun Devils like a 'wounded animal' that is plenty 'dangerous'

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY β€” There's something different about Utah's annual game against Arizona State.

To say the two schools don't like each other is an understatement and one that doesn't fully encompass the relationship among the two former South Division opponents. It's not quite a rivalry, but it is ... but it's not.

It's just Arizona State. Enough said.

"You know, I feel like it's just β€” I don't know what it was. Like, I still don't even know what it is," defensive tackle Simote Pepa said. "It's like when we play Arizona State, there's just a lot of passion between the players. It's just everything clicks when you get on the field.

"Everybody turns into a dog out there. Pretty much it's whoever's the biggest dog, who really wants it the most is the team that wins. So I feel like it's just got a lot of dogs out there on the field and they're just unleashed, and whoever wants it the most gets it."

It's a battle: A battle in the trenches. A battle to get after the quarterback. A battle to derail all aspects of what each other does with a passion that burns a little hotter than in other conference games.

"It's just a chippy game, honestly," defensive end Jonah Elliss said. "I remember playing in it last year, and it's just everyone's really dialed in. It's like other games, but it's like, there's a different edge to it. And honestly, it's not a rivalry game, but it's like every game in the Pac 12 to us is we've got to win that β€” like, there's no room for mistake. And so it's just higher magnitude."

It's clear the game means something more to both parties β€” just ask Arizona State offensive lineman LaDarius Henderson, who said earlier this week in a press conference that "I really don't like Utah."

"You guys know why," he offered to the media. "My teammates know that about me. It's not my cup of tea."

It's even shown in how Utah football released its game recap video after last season's come-from-behind win over Arizona State where Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is seen on the sidelines saying: "Game. Set. Match. Checkmate."

It's not a game to be taken lightly for any involved.

And given all the turmoil surrounding the Sun Devils' program β€” an NCAA investigation, a coaching staff in flux, a mass exodus of key players entering the transfer portal, a suboptimal recruiting class, and its head coach Herm Edwards fired on Sunday β€” there's reason to believe on Utah's side that Saturday's game is "dangerous."

Whittingham sees Arizona State as a "wounded animal" β€” one to be cautious around in how it might react when it's approached.

"Oftentimes you see where an interim (coach) has come in and they circle the wagons and give a supreme effort the next week," he said. "So you never know what to expect or what's going to happen. But take it for granted, though, they'll beat you β€” I promise you."

"They're either going to come out like a rabid animal and really attack or not," Elliss added. "But it's honestly no different for us. Whether they do that or not, we still do our game. Whether they come out chippy, whether they came out talking a whole bunch of extra stuff, we just ignore it and do our thing."

Given Arizona State's effort in a 30-21 loss to Eastern Michigan last week β€” which included a "very porous" run defense, according to Whittingham β€” anything is possible in Tempe, Arizona (8:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN).

Regardless of the noise surrounding the program and the turmoil and distractions, Utah is approaching the game as if Arizona State will be its usual tough battle in a hostile road environment. Whether favored by 15 points or not, it's where Utah begins its path to another run at a conference championship.

That belief comes from the fact that Edwards ran the program like a CEO and not a coach in many respects; he entrusted his coaching staff with the day-to-day duties and he oversaw the master plan. It's for that reason that Whittingham doesn't expect a wholesale change in how the team operates.

"I don't think you're gonna see a lot of change based on the change of head coach, as far as schematics of the offense and defense," he said. "It's tough to do that in one week. Now, if they had a bye week, maybe you'd see more of that, but just going from Saturday to Saturday, there's not a whole lot you can change in that period of time."

The Sun Devils will feature "a lot of RPOs and the spread offense," Whittingham said, in addition to having another mobile, dual-threat quarterback in Florida transfer Emory Jones under center. The roster is more than capable of beating Utah and giving the No. 13-ranked team in the country its first conference loss of the season.

"They've got talent, particularly the interior three β€” those running backs, the quarterback can run the ball, so it's definitely not for a lack of talent," defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said. "Every week is a different week, particularly in this league. They've got a new interim coach β€” probably re-energized, re-juiced and excited to play again, and so we're gonna get their best shot."

"They've got a new staff coming in and new head man, so we've gotta be ready to go," running back Jaylon Glover added. "We can't let them come out, because they're gonna be ready to fight. They're gonna be ready to fight, but we've got to kick it to them early β€” and we can't start slow."

Not against Arizona State.

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer of University of Utah athletics β€” primarily football, men’s basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.


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