Since Todd Graham took over as head coach of Arizona State, he has not lost to Pac-12 South foe Utah. He is 2-0 against them which include a blowout home win in year one and a old fashion defensive slugfest in year two.
But if you ask Graham or any coach who have faced the Utes in 2014, this is a whole different ball game on Saturday’s compared to how it has been the last two seasons. For the first time since joining the Pac-12, Utah is ranked in the top 25 and for good reason. On the year they have beat up Michigan at the Big House, knocked off the then number eight UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl and last week, a big home win over USC. The only loss on the season, a head-scratching home loss to Washington State.
Utah was not short on talent last season but other than handing Stanford their first loss of 2013, the were on the wrong side of some very close contests. This season, the have been on the right side of them.
At his weekly press conference on Monday, Graham was asked what he sees as the difference in this team in how they have been able to turn those close losses from 2013 into wins in 2014. He stated there was one main reason, their running back, Devontae Booker.
“Man, I don’t know him, but I like him,” Graham said of Booker. “He makes you tackle him, he runs hard, you can tell their line has a belief in him.”
It has been a breakout season for the junior running back out of Sacramento, California. Out of high school, Booker originally signed with Washington State but would enroll at American River College in Sacramento. He then signed with Utah in 2013 but spent the year completing academic requirements. In 2014, he began his two years of eligibility with the University of Utah and has been turning heads in the process.
Booker did not begin the season as the starter and in fact, in the first three games of the season, had just 10, 1o, and 11 carries in the games. He became the primary back in their fourth game against Washington State where he ran for 178 yards on 24 carries. His biggest performance to date, three weeks ago in a thrilling game against Oregon State Beavers in where rushed for 229 yards and three scored on 32 carries in the overtime road win. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in each game he has been the feature back.
“It’s a team that understands that you have to run the football to win,” mentioned Graham. “They are pretty solid, but the difference in this team if that was the question, is their running back. You can tell they rally around his passion and his intensity.”
ASU started their first five games of the season surrendering a 100 yard rusher in four of them. For two weeks in a row against Stanford and Washington, the Sun Devils have sured up that run defense and individual rushers have failed to eclipse the century mark.
Something will have to give on Saturday night if the Sun Devils or if Booker want to keep up with this momentum.