Utah boasts the top defensive tackle in the Pac-12 -- probably the country -- in Star Lotulelei. Arizona State's defensive tackle -- Will Sutton -- is probably playing the best football of any defensive interior lineman through the first three weeks of the season.
Both take center stage this weekend when the Sun Devils host Utah on Saturday in a Pac-12 South matchup. Each team is looking to get to 3-1, and both coaches believe it will be the play of their defenses that gets them there.
"You've got two guys that are probably pretty similar," said ASU coach Todd Graham of the opposing defensive tackles. "They are both pretty dominant, both pretty physical, both very fast off the ball and explosive and disruptive. It will be interesting to watch those two on opposite sides of the ball. They are similar in their skill set. But Will is my guy so I'm pretty partial to him."
And with good reason. Sutton is tied for second in the conference in sacks (3) and has more tackles than any other defensive tackle in the conference with 22. He's tied for 11th in the league in tackles and only linebackers and defensive backs rank ahead of him.
Pretty good stuff. But Utah's offensive line, though there is some inexperience, is used to seeing a pretty good defensive line in practice.
"We have a pretty formidable front led by Star Lotulelei," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "He's our leader on defense, no doubt. I think having the opportunity for our offensive line to go up against a quality defensive line like they do week in and week out is a healthy thing and a good thing. And hopefully it makes them better."
Probably not a good thing for Utah this week, but Lotulelei has actually made Sutton better, though he probably doesn't know it. Sutton has been a fan of Lotulelei for quite some time. And he watches film on Utah's big man every chance he gets.
"He's big and physical so I like to see what he does," said Sutton, a 6-foot-2, 271-pound junior. "I'll study him and see if I can use any of his moves to better myself."
Is he willing to share what he's learned?
"Yes, I have taken some stuff from him, and no I can't tell what," Sutton said with a laugh.
At 6-4, 320 pounds, Lotulelei isn't the type of player who will put up big statistical numbers. His job is to disrupt, plug holes and eat up blockers. He's exceptional at it, which is why many project him to be a top-10 pick in the 2013 NFL draft. However, he came up big in Utah's victory last week over rival BYU, tallying six solo tackles and blocking a field goal.
Naturally, Lotulelei and the rest of the Utah front have Graham concerned.
"This is the best defense we've played so far," Graham said. "I think the explosiveness on the defensive line, their interior defensive linemen, there aren't any better in the country. They have one of the best defensive tackles in the nation. They are very disruptive, very explosive and very smart. They are well-coached. One week they'll do a multitude of things. They are well-schooled schematically."
And Utah's defense gets a boost this week with the return of safety Brian Blechen, who missed the first three games serving a suspension.
"He is ready," Whittingham said. "He has worked his tail off. He has taken virtually every rep for us on the scout teams. If there is a positive aspect, he has handled it the right way and done everything he could do -- he was a quarterback on the scout teams, a receiver, whatever we have needed him to do he has done."
ASU comes into the game tied for the conference lead with seven interceptions. Utah quarterback Jon Hays, who has once again thrust into the role as starter, is completing 56 percent of his throws (30 of 53) with three touchdowns and no interceptions. The Utes should also be more effective running the ball with John White back in the lineup. Whittingham said that will be crucial moving forward.
"Arizona State is very good on the defensive line and playing good defense overall," Whittingham said. "We've got our work cut for us, there is no doubt about it. We've got to play much better in the run game offensively than we have been if we want to have a chance to win. We haven't been running the football nearly effective enough so that's one area of emphasis for us."