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Arizona State looks to sharpen play with 6-1 Utes coming to town

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TEMPE – Arizona State’s trip to Washington ended in victory Saturday, but it came with a heavy dose of adversity.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly was rusty in his return from injury, completing 14 of 25 passes for 180 yards, left guard Christian Westerman was injured late in the third quarter and the Sun Devils mustered a season-low 290 yards through sideways rain and high winds. But ASU emerged with a 24-10 road win.

Head coach Todd Graham said those challenges were exactly what they needed to improve.

“Everything that happened in that game – everything – was perfect, because when you prevail and face that kind of adversity … it helps you mature,” he said.

A big concern for the Sun Devils last weekend – and every weekend through the fat of their schedule – was how they would handle strong, aggressive defenses in the Pacific-12 Conference.

ASU’s next opponent, Utah, is certainly no exception, leading the nation in total sacks (35) and sacks per game (5). The Utes, 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the Pac-12, also boast a 2-0 record over ranked conference teams.

Graham said even though the Sun Devils have beaten the Utes the last two years, this matchup consistently challenges his team.

“I have a lot of respect for them and how they play,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you, that was one of the most physical games we’ve played in the last year. We were very fortunate to get out of there with a win.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said that Utah is not a team to overlook.

“They’re very aggressive. Their guys, they play as hard as anyone we’ll play against,” he said. “They’ve gotten better each week they take the field … it’s been a physical battle every year we play them and it’s going to be a tremendous matchup.”

But the Sun Devil offense isn’t perfect. Norvell said his players have plenty to work on this week before they face the Utes at home Saturday.

“We have to continue to clean up the little things,” he said. “When you go back and watch the film, the mistakes we’re making are so, so, so small but have big ramifications towards maybe a play not working.”

At 6-1 overall and 4-1 in the Pac-12, the Sun Devils control their own destiny: By winning out and emerging as a one-loss Pac-12 champion, they would be a viable candidate for the College Football Playoff.

Graham said he doesn’t worry about playoff contention or consider it a goal, but he didn’t shy away from the importance of Saturday’s game. Its winner will sit atop the Pac-12 South.

“I think it’s important to have a destination, to know where you want to go, but obviously, you have to focus on the one right in front of you,” he said.

“Our focus is winning the next five conference games. Then we don’t have to worry about it. We’ll be in good shape,” he added.