TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — That 0-2 start to the Pac-12 season seems like ancient history to Utah now.
The No. 16 Utes (6-2, 4-2 Pac-12) have won four straight, topping 40 points in each of the wins, and sit alone atop the Pac-12 South heading in to Saturday’s game at Arizona State.
“They have got a senior-laden defense with a lot of experience over there,” Sun Devils coach Herm Edwards said. “They don’t give up a lot of points, averaging about 16 points a game. They have done a nice job up there.”
The Utes, in their 14th season under coach Kyle Whittingham, are 3-0 against Pac-12 South opponents. They lost to Washington and Washington State before reeling off wins over Stanford (40-21), Arizona (42-10), USC (41-28) and UCLA (41-10).
Arizona State (4-4, 2-3) is coming off one of its biggest wins under first-year coach Edwards, a 38-35 victory over USC in Los Angeles.
“They have some weapons,” Whittingham said. “They have a very good running back. Their quarterback is dynamic and athletic and their receivers are as good as there is in the country. We have a lot of challenges, particularly for our defense, coming up this week.”
Utah leads the Pac-12 and is third nationally in rushing defense at 81.1 yards per game. The Utes lead the conference and are seventh nationally in total defense (287 yards) and lead the nation in red zone defense (54.5 percent).
“They are big and physical up front, especially with their defensive line,” Edwards said, “and their secondary is pretty active.”
Utah’s Cody Barton had seven tackles, an interception and a pass breakup last weekend against the Bruins.
Here are some things to consider when the Utes visit the Sun Devils.
ROLLING MOSS: Utah’s Zack Moss rushed for 211 yards, a career best, in last weekend’s win over UCLA.
The junior has rushed for 964 yards, third-most in the conference and seventh nationally. So he needs just 36 yards for his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. Moss is averaging six yards per carry.
Edwards called Moss “a really downhill back.”
“He’s not going to dodge you, he’s going to run over you and you better tackle him,” Edwards said.
HARRY PROBLEM: One of the Utes’ biggest challenges is corralling N’Keal Harry, who is coming off a big game at USC.
Considered one of the best receivers in the country, Harry had two highly memorable plays in that game. His one-handed grab of a pass from Manny Wilkins went viral on Twitter and he had an unlikely reverse-the-field 92-yard punt return for a touchdown.
The performance alerted much of the country to the talented receiver’s abilities.
“I don’t know if maybe the East Coast people don’t know,” Edwards said, “but I think anybody who watches football and pays attention to it, they know how good he is. When he’s playing well and (running back) Eno (Benjamin) and our offensive line is blocking, and Manny has time, our offense can be productive. We have some explosive players.”
MULTI-PURPOSE COVEY: Utah has a do-everything receiver in Britain Covey, who is tied for third in the conference in receptions with 48 for 531 yards. He is the only non-quarterback in the Pac-12 to throw two touchdown passes this season, a 56-yarder against Arizona and a 7-yarder against UCLA. Covey has five games of at least 100 all-purpose yards this season.
“He is probably one of the most intelligent players that I have ever coached or been around,” Whittingham said, “so he can be taught all of those various positions where he is in the backfield or the slot or involved in special plays.”
BENJAMIN VS. UTES: Benjamin, Arizona State’s bowling ball of a running back, has 938 yards rushing and, with four games remaining, could easily become the Sun Devils’ top running back in the Pac-12 era.
“He is a solid back. He is consistent and a tough runner,” Whittingham said. “He has very good vision. He runs behind his pads well and he gets north and south. There isn’t a lot of wasted motion with him. He takes good care of the ball. Their whole team is doing well at taking care of the ball. They have only turned it over six times this year and that is low in the Pac-12.
“We really liked him out of high school and recruited him hard, but ended up not getting him.”