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Utes, Sun Devils ready for Pac-12 opener

Associated Press Modified: September 21, 2012 at 12:05 pm •  Published: September 21, 2012

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State knocked out Northern Arizona quarterback Cary Grossart before halftime, didn't play against Illinois starter Nathan Scheelhaase and missed Missouri first-teamer James Franklin.

Continuing their season-long trend, the Sun Devils will face their fourth straight backup quarterback Saturday night, when Utah and senior Jon Hays visit Sun Devil Stadium for both team's Pac-12 opener.

Not that it matters to them.

Maybe Jordan Wynn was a little more dynamic than Hays before he got hurt, but it doesn't affect Arizona State's preparation for stopping the Utes.

"It is said that you prepare for one guy or another guy, but people don't change their entire offensive for one person," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. "I thought it did hurt them because I really thought Jordan Wynn was very special. But we are not going against an inexperienced quarterback or freshman quarterback. We have a guy who is very knowledgeable and has very good understanding of what they are doing offensively."

Hays will be thrust into the spotlight against Arizona State for the second straight season.

He wasn't recruited by any Division I school until a roundabout journey to Salt Lake City and became the starter when Wynn suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in October. Hays threw three interceptions in his first start, a home loss to Arizona State, and had an up-and-down ride despite the Utes going 6-3 with him under center.

With Wynn back and two heralded freshmen on the roster, Hays didn't get much buzz in the spring or heading into the season.

But when Wynn suffered a fourth shoulder injury that ended his career, it was Hays' turn to step in again.

He handled it a little better this time, completing 18 of 27 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers in the Utes' upset victory over rival Brigham Young last week.

"My skill set has really improved. I've worked really hard in the offseason," Hays said. "I have a lot better understanding of the game than when I came in. It's night and day difference from last year. Looking back I don't think I'd make those same mistakes. I know I can play and my teammates know I can play."

Utah (2-1) had an up-and-down run into its first conference game.

The Utes rolled over Northern Colorado in their opener, then flopped against rival Utah State, losing Wynn in the second quarter and the game in overtime to see their 12-game winning streak against the Aggies end.

Utah bounced back with its 24-21 win over Brigham Young. The Utes blew most of a 17-point lead and had to withstand two field goal tries by the then-25th-ranked Cougars with one second left in a wild finish that had the fans racing onto the field three different times.

Utah will get playmaking strong safety Brian Blechen back from a three-game suspension for violating team rules and running back John White is expected to play against Arizona State after missing the BYU game with an ankle injury.

"As disappointing as the game was two weeks ago, there was no drop whatsoever in concentration," Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. "As a coach, that's what you want, is guys with that attitude and these guys have that."

Arizona State (2-1) got its first season under Graham going in dominating fashion, playing with discipline and poise while routing Northern Arizona and Illinois in its first two games.

The Sun Devils lost a little discipline and their grip on the football in last week's 24-20 loss to Missouri, turning it over four times while being penalized seven times — two more than the first two games combined.

Arizona State also had a terrible day on special teams, including a bobbled snap by punter Josh Hubner that led to an 11-yard punt and a botched snap by holder Ryan Woods on a PAT attempt that forced the Sun Devils to twice go for a winning touchdown in the closing minutes instead of being able to try for a tying field goal.

The Sun Devils came up just short for their first taste of adversity under Graham.

"We put all that behind us, that is preseason," Graham said. "I think our guys are pretty much healthy and I know that they are excited to get conference play started."

So are the Utes, with their new starting quarterback.