Non-conference games are all well and good. They provide fun road trips for fans, a chance to host teams from all over the country and a nice bellwether for how your team stacks up with others from around the nation.
There's a special kind of feeling, though, when those games finish up and conference business begins. On Saturday night, Arizona State and Utah will take their first steps toward competing in what's shaping up to be a hyper-competitive and crowded Pac-12 South.
On last night's edition of The Devils' Roundtable on BoldSaguaros.com, my co-blogger, Rich Gray, and I talked about how Sun Devil teams of the past have responded to adversity, both in the midst of games and after tough losses. For Todd Graham and this year's squad, they've already experienced the former, and tonight, they'll show us what they do with the latter.
Arizona State showed tremendous fightback against a tough Missouri team in a brutal road environment, especially in a situation in which Sun Devil squads of the past may have come unhinged. Down 24-7, Taylor Kelly, Marion Grice and the ASU defense raised their play to the next level. They ended up not pulling off a comeback victory, but that effort and response to adversity certainly put them in the position to do so.
That's more than we could ask for from a team that's young, inexperienced in big situations and still has a lot of maturing to do.
The maturation process now continues in a game where Arizona State will have to show the Pac-12 how they respond to tough losses, and it's not going to get any easier. Utah is brimming with confidence after an enormous home victory over arch-rival BYU last week and they bring a ton of talent to Frank Kush Field.
Inevitably, this game will be won and lost (surprise!) in the trenches, and it'll be a battle for ASU's offensive line. They're going up against what's easily the best defensive line they've faced so far this season, and potentially the best they'll battle until playing USC later this year. There's no selling short the impact that senior defensive tackle Star Lotulelei will have, but the Devils can't afford to key in on him - not when other members of that line, like Dave Kruger, Joe Kruger and Nate Fakahafua need extra attention as well.
To beat that athletic offensive line, Kelly and the flock of talented playmakers in the Sun Devil backfield will need to make quick, smart decision and hit holes as quickly as possible. Those holes, when they come, will not be open for long. Not only is Utah's defensive line huge, they're athletic, and they get into the backfield almost at will.
In an effort to combat this, look for the Sun Devils to improvise as they did during the comeback against Missouri. I continue to be impressed by the way guys like Grice and D.J. Foster make things happen with their legs (and their heads).
When the Utes have the ball, more often than not it'll be in the hands of running back John White, who's averaging more than 107 yards per game and posting 4.2 yards per carry in his two games of action. White, who's coming into Saturday after missing the Brigham Young victory while nursing an ankle injury, is getting the ball more than 25 times per game. Arizona State can't afford to key in on him, though, not with playmakers like Dres Anderson and DeVonte Christopher lurking on the edges.
In an effort to flush White and starting quarterback Jon Hays, Arizona State will likely bring added pressure from the edges and linebackers. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham was impressed with the performance of true freshman right tackle Jeremiah Poutasi against the Cougars last week, and he's a hulking specimen at 6-foot-5 and 322 pounds as a babe. If ASU can apply pressure on that side, though, and perhaps take advantage of his inexperience on the road, the Devils may be able to get a leg up.
This is all moot, of course, if Arizona State reverts to bad habits and starts taking bad penalties again. Perhaps we were spoiled by the one (intentional) penalty performance the Sun Devils put up against Illinois, but bad memories of the past cropped up when the team took ill-timed penalties early and often against Missouri. Utah can be explosive enough on their own. There's no reason to help them with field position.
Saturday night serves as CTG's first chance to show how his coaching and locker room attitude differs from what we saw over the past five seasons under Dennis Erickson. It's his chance to get his squad riled up and ready to respond after a close loss.
Either way, it should be a fun one.