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Tempe, Ariz. • Asked about playing at Arizona State, Utah receiver Kenneth Scott's eyes lit up.
"Yeah, it gets real now," he said.
Yes, it does.
As much fun as they had piling it on against Northern Colorado, as painful as it was losing to Utah State and as emotional as it was to beat BYU, those games don't matter at all in the Utes' quest to contend for the Pac-12 title.
But starting with tonight's game here against Arizona State, the outcomes are as real as it gets.
"It's a tough schedule, and you can't take a week off," quarterback Jon Hays said. "Every team from top to bottom can beat you, and we know we have to be on our game every week."
The Utes know just how dangerous the Pac-12 can be after their inaugural season in which they lost their first four league games, then battled back to be in position to clinch a possible spot in the Pac-12 title game only to lose to Colorado, a team that hadn't won outside the state of Colorado in 24 consecutive games.
This year, the Utes would like to avoid such drama and heartbreak.
"Obviously, every Pac-12 game is important," safety Quade Chappuis said. "Our goal is to win the South so we know we have to play hard in every game."
It will take an all-out effort Saturday night if the Utes are to beat the Sun Devils. The last time the Utes played in Sun Devil Stadium was in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl when Utah beat Pitt. But that game is one of the few good memories the Utes have in ASU's territory.
The Utes haven't beaten ASU in Tempe since 1976, a stretch of six straight losses.
Last year, the Sun Devils beat the Utes 35-14 in their visit to Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Saturday's game could be even more difficult for the Utes. Quarterback Jon Hays is much improved since a year ago, when he threw three interceptions in his first start against the Sun Devils. However, he won't have a healthy John White available and he must contend with a pass defense that is sixth in the nation, giving up 147.3 yards a game. The Sun Devils yield just 14.7 points a game, ranking 25th nationally.
"We know they have a good group of playmakers," Hays said. "We have to stop making our own mistakes too and execute better."
The upside for the Utes is that Hays is playing as confidently as he speaks. Hays was 18-for-27 for 196 yards and two touchdowns against BYU and ran the offense with a definitive command.
Going up against Arizona State again gave him perspective on how far he has come as the Utes' quarterback.
"I'm making smarter decisions than I was a year ago," he said. "I feel a lot more comfortable back there, and I'm taking better care of the football."
Whether he can take care of the offense enough for the Utes to notch a road win will be the question of the night.
Hays, for one, is a believer.
"Our execution is better and we aren't making so many assignment errors," he said of the Utes' improvement over the last three games. "We have to continue on that. But we definitely have a team that can compete. The way our defense plays, we're always going to be in games."
Utah at Arizona State
P Saturday, 8 p.m. MDT, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
TV • Pac-12 Network. Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 2-1, ASU 2-1
Series history • ASU leads 17-6
Last meeting • ASU won, 35-14, Oct. 8, 2011
About the Utes • The Utes are coming off an emotional 24-21 win over BYU, a game played without starting safety Eric Rowe (hamstring) and running back John White (ankle). … White has had limited reps in practice this week, leaving his status in question. … Safety Brian Blechen, who was suspended for the first three games of the season, is expected to start.
About the Sun Devils • Lost 24-20 at Missouri a week ago. … Ranks third in scoring in the Pac-12, averaging 42.7 points, and ranks second in scoring defense, giving up 14.7 points. …Taylor Kelly ranks third in the league in total offense (267.3). … Coached by Todd Graham, who was the coach at Pitt last year when the Utes beat the Panthers.