During this chaos known as Pac-12 conference play, there have been surprises, as there obviously will be with preseason predictions being incredibly fallible. Of the surprises, Devontae Booker and the resilience of Arizona State have been large factors in the Pac-12 South race at this point in the season. Booker has been the biggest threat for a Utah offense that has been lackluster in the passing game. Arizona State has recovered from a shellacking suffered at the hands of Brett Hundley, Ishmael Adams, and the rest of the UCLA Bruins, beating USC on the Jaelmary and beating two other talented teams in Stanford and Washington. Booker faces an Arizona State defense that allowed 76 rushing yards to the Cardinal and held Washington to 10 points in the swirling winds of Husky Stadium.
The Rise of Devontae Booker
Originally a commit for Washington State in the class of 2010, but poor grades kept him from playing with the Cougars, and after spending two years at American River College in Sacramento, ended up at Utah. He was academically ineligible last fall, but is back on track currently in leading the Utes' rushing attack. Booker is currently third in the conference in rushing yards, trailing Javorius Allen and Paul "Ann" Perkins. He has come on of late, putting up 100 yard efforts over his past four games, with a 229 yard, 3TD performance against Oregon State in a game where Utah quarterbacks passed for 62 yards combined.
In the past four games, Booker has settled into a comfort zone. When his carries got doubled during the Washington State game, he responded in putting up a hundred yard game and hasn't looked back since. With increased time playing with the same offensive line, he has come to trust his blocks more and is hitting holes with increased alacrity and quickness. Take his touchdown from the USC game, now in gif form.
Utah lines up in a 12 personnel (1 RB, 2TE) in the pistol with trips left. Upon the snap, the Utah line leaves a backside linebacker unblocked, giving the line more of an advantage to the playside. The playside tight end blocking down on the defensive tackle and the pull from the center create the hole that Booker hits. He explodes through the hole and his linemen getting to the second level shield him off well enough for Booker to sprint to the end zone nearly untouched. Against Oregon State, he demonstrated power as well, stiff arming defenders as well as bowling over defenders. As his familiarity with the offensive line grows throughout the remainder of the season, Utah can be a legitimate threat in the Pac-12 championship race.
A Preview for Arizona State/Utah
In a matchup of one loss teams in the South, Arizona State will play host to the Utes. After taking a 62-27 beating against UCLA, the Sun Devils have made their mark in getting past the worst hail mary defense of all time, making Stanford look stupid (possibly contributing to their number 4 ranking in the US News rankings, below Cal), and toughing it out against a solid Washington defense without being able to throw the ball in the winds in Seattle. A transition to a 4-3 look on defense during the Stanford game. This allowed for better matchups against the Stanford front and allowing for plays like this. ASU uses a late corner blitz in addition to sending five to occupy the line. Patrick Skov doesn't expect the blitz and is too late to react to Lloyd Carrington decimating Kevin Hogan. With a lack of talent at the quarterback position during this 3-game swing, Todd Graham made an excellent move in switching over to this defense.
They kept the 4-3 against Washington, and like Stanford before them and Utah after them, they didn't have a quarterback to make throws against the Sun Devil secondary. This allows them to send six on a rush, on this play, without recourse as long as their zones can hold up. This also allows for the Devils to gamble a little bit more for sacks, which bringing pressure obviously helps with. Expect Arizona State to bring pressure early and often this Saturday. Though the Utah offensive line has proven solid, Travis Wilson is missing one of his main targets in Dres Anderson, who has gone down with a knee injury. With that weakness, ASU can load up the box on Booker, and without the wind, Taylor Kelly should have a much more efficient game as long as the offensive line can hold against a fantastic Utah pass rush.
My prediction for this game would be a 24-23 victory for Arizona State, since the Utes have struggled with talented passers at time. If Kelly can get the ball out quickly, on short routes and screens to DJ Foster, ASU can chew up clock and keep Devontae Booker out of the picture. I believe Booker will get his, along with Kaelin Clay making a spectacular play in the return game. It should be an excellent game with a twinge of defense for those who aren't completely sold on drunk Pac-12 football. It has major implications for the Pac-12 South title and is definitely worth a watch.