Pick Six Previews: Utes have advantage at every position group over Sun Devils

Brionne Penny (16) of the San Diego State Aztecs misses a pass as it was deflected by Zemaiah Vaughn (16) of the Utah Utes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. The Utes won 35-7.

Brionne Penny (16) of the San Diego State Aztecs misses a pass as it was deflected by Zemaiah Vaughn (16) of the Utah Utes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. The Utes won 35-7. (Ben B. Braun, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY β€” Wearing their tribal "Ute Proud" alternate helmets and all-black uniforms, Utah got revenge on San Diego State in dominating fashion.

After a scoreless first quarter, Utah cashed in 35 unanswered points before a late Aztecs touchdown against the reserves. Morgan Scalley's defense held San Diego State under 100 offensive yards until late in the third quarter, and they failed to cross midfield until the fourth quarter.

Cam Rising started 4-of-13 passing but closed on a 12-of-17 (71%) run that included a career-high four passing touchdowns. The first was a seam route to a wide-open Brant Kuithe and two more were hauled in by Devaughn Vele, who made spectacular catches in the end zone.

Utah football named Vele their offensive player of the game, and he may become the impact No. 1 receiver that was an uncertainty back in fall camp.

Tavion Thomas was the lead rusher with 59 yards on 16 carries and punched in yet another touchdown. Thomas has now rushed for a touchdown in each of his last 12 games, which is the longest active streak in America and double the next closest Power Five streak (six by Clemson's Will Shipley).

The opening loss to Florida took away Utah's playoff margin of error, and the Utes must navigate the nine-game Pac-12 regular season, and the conference title, perfectly with no mulligan. Since the Pac-12 expanded in 2011, no team has gone a perfect 9-0 in conference play.

Arizona State is the first Pac-12 challenge. The Sun Devils are 1-2 and fired head coach Herm Edwards after their 30-21 loss to Eastern Michigan, which was the first-ever MAC over Pac-12 upset in the regular season. Utah has won four of the last six in this series, including a 35-21 win last year.

Game Grader

(Opponent-adjusted statistical dominance via Pick Six Previews)

3-Year average 2019-21: Utah 68.9 (7th) | Arizona State 56.2 (24th of 66 Power Five)
2021 Season: Utah 69.5 (7th) | Arizona State 54.2 (29th of 66 Power Five)
2022 Season: Utah 63.9 (22nd) | Arizona State 21.7 (63rd of 66 Power Five)

Utah's decisive 35-7 (+230 yardage) win over non-AQ San Diego State moved them up two spots to No. 22 in the 2022 Game Grader. Arizona State is reeling after consecutive losses to Oklahoma State and Eastern Michigan β€” this is currently one of the worst Power Five teams.

Arizona State with the ball

Arizona State underwent a complete offensive overhaul this offseason as a result of the program's mass exodus via the transfer portal. They had to replace the quarterback, both running backs, the starting tight end, four receivers, and three offensive line starters. Oh, and the coordinator Zak Hill departed.

Emory Jones transferred in from Florida and won the starting quarterback job in fall camp. Jones is ranked ninth of the Pac-12 starting quarterbacks in yards/attempt, completion percentage, and the all-encompassing QB Rating.

They do still have a few playmakers at the skill positions: Xazavian Valladay leads the conference in rushing (361 yards, 7.0 per carry), spring ball star Elijhah Badger is emerging as a top receiving threat, and Andre Johnson (Chad's son) has high potential.

Utah's defense has cleaned up its performance since the missed tackles in the Florida loss, but this is their first Power Five test since then. This is also another test against a dual-threat quarterback after Florida's Anthony Richardson dodged the pass rush and crushed Utah with his legs in the red zone.

While they do have some talented skill players, look for Utah's front to win against Arizona State's offensive line.

Utah with the ball

Arizona State stayed in their 4-3 base defense the entire game last week and had no answer for Eastern Michigan's downhill, inside run game. EMU running back Samson Evans rushed for 258 yards and earned the national Doak Walker running back of the week honors. The defense also failed to contain backup, dual-threat quarterback Austin Smith β€” look for Rising to burn them on zone read pulls and third-down scrambles.

It took nine quarters into the 2022 season for Arizona State to register its first sack. This is a definite advantage for Utah's offensive line, which is ranked in the Top 15 of my pass protection Sack Rate so far. If last week is any indication, look for Utah to establish its physical run game. I like how coordinator Andy Ludwig got several backs involved with end arounds (Jaylon Glover) and receptions (Micah Bernard).

Game prediction

Midseason coach firings bring a dose of variability. In rare cases, the team rallies around the interim coach, bonds together, and plays with tremendous emotion and energy. Last year's example was when TCU fired longtime head coach Gary Patterson, and then the team upset eventual Big 12 champions Baylor to essentially block them from a playoff bid.

The more common result is an unfocused team dealing with disruptions and competing factions of the locker room and staff. I just witnessed one of these last Saturday as I was on the sidelines at Nebraska. The hometown Huskers had just fired head coach Scott Frost, and after an emotional opening touchdown, they proceeded to allow 49 unanswered points to Oklahoma.

I expect the latter example here. Utah has the advantage at every position group and is laser focused on defending their league title. In my 2022 preview magazine Pick Six Previews, I selected Arizona State fifth in the Pac-12 South β€” lower than all other magazines. They have proven me right so far.

Utah 41 | Arizona State 20

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Brett Ciancia is the owner of Pick Six Previews, a college football preview magazine graded as the "Most Accurate Season Preview" since 2012 (via Stassen). Ciancia was named a Heisman Trophy voter in 2019 and was invited to the FWAA's All-America Team selection committee in 2020.

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