By Jack Magruder
The Sports Xchange
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Utah will continue moving toward a possible berth in the Pac-12 championship game for the first time in program history while Arizona State simply hopes to have its starting quarterback back in the lineup when the teams meet Thursday (9:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1).
The No. 16 Utes (7-2, 4-2) are coming off a bye following a seven-point loss to No. 5 Washington on Oct. 29, and despite the loss they still control their own destiny in a jumbled Pac-12 South race.
By winning its final three games, Utah would at worst force a three-way tie in the division, and in that scenario the Utes' victories over Colorado and USC would propel them to the title game against the Pac-12 North winner -- a likely rematch against Washington. Utah finishes the regular season at No. 15 Colorado (7-2, 5-1) on Nov. 26.
Arizona State (5-4, 2-4) has lost three games in a row and four of five while being beset with injuries all over the field but most crucially at the quarterback spot, its most fragile area entering the season. The Sun Devils played without 10 starters in a loss a 54-35 loss at Oregon in their last game Oct. 29.
Sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins, who led the Sun Devils to 66 points over Texas Tech and 51 against California in September victories, has been in an and out of the lineup while dealing with ankle and shoulder injuries since. He was back in practice Sunday and appears set to return to the starting lineup.
"It's great to have him back," ASU coach Todd Graham said in anticipation of Wilkins' return. "It's obviously been tough."
Utah is led by surprise returnee running back Joe Williams, who has rushed for 683 yards and six touchdowns in three games since ending a self-imposed retirement on Oct. 11. Williams returned after injuries to the Utes' three top rushers, who were attempting to replace NFL draft choice Devontae Booker.
Williams had a school-record 332 yards in a 52-45 victory at UCLA on Oct. 22, the best rushing game in the FBS this season and the fourth-highest in Pac-12 history. He tied a school game record with four touchdowns against the Bruins.
"He's a different guy since he has come back," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He has been a warrior. He said, 'Coach, I'm going to be your guy.' He said it very confidently. He said, 'Don't worry about taking me out, I want the ball.' That's exactly what's happened."
The Utes are averaging 214 yards rushing per game, third in a conference that is heavy on the pass, and because of that average 35:55 minutes of possession, second in the FBS.
Quarterback Troy Williams is averaging 209.8 yards passing per game, striking an almost 50-50 balance on the offense, but Whittingham said he hopes to use the passing game more down the stretch.
"We are still not throwing the ball as effectively as we need to," Whittingham said. "We have to get Troy opportunities early in the game to get some completions."We have to dial up some more throws, be more accurate and have fewer drops on the receiving end."
Utah has built its record with strong defense and special teams play, too. The Utes are tied with Memphis for the FBS lead with 23 takeaways, on 15 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. They also lead the FBS in net punting.
Arizona State has had a lot of trouble keeping opponents at bay. The Sun Devils have given up 513.6 yards total offense per game, which ranks 124th out of the 128 FBS programs. They have given up 36.6 points a game, which ranks 115th.
Wilkins' return should help ASU keep the ball away from the defense, at least. He has passed for 1,421 yards and rushed for 227 more while accounting for 11 touchdowns despite being less than full strength since suffering a left ankle injury in a loss at USC on Oct 1. He has not played since suffering a shoulder injury in the first quarter of a loss to Washington State on Oct. 22.
He threw passes with the first unit when the Sun Devils returned to practice Sunday following their bye week and he is expected to start Thursday. True freshmen Brady White and Dillon Sterling-Cole have been forced into starts for the Sun Devils in Wilkins' absence.
Sterling-Cole threw for 302 yards but also had three interceptions in the 54-35 loss to the Ducks, his first career start. Entering the season, Arizona State and Tulane were the only FBS programs without a quarterback who had thrown a pass in a college game.
Junior halfback Demario Richard, who leads the Sun Devils with 532 yards, also is expected to play after missing the Oregon game.
"You play them, you better bring it," Graham said of the Utes. "It's going to be a blocking, tackling game."