(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
At this point, the Sun Devils are looking to just clinch a bowl berth.
Arizona State (5-5) fell to the Utah Utes (8-2) 49-26 in the final home game of the season on Thursday night – the team’s fourth-straight loss since starting 5-1.
Much of the same problems that have plagued head coach Todd Graham and his team this season continued to play a role against the Utes – explosive plays allowed through the air, poor decision making on offense and lackluster play on the offensive line.
On the back end of the defense, Graham is continuing to search for a solution.
Four – Passing touchdowns thrown by Utah quarterback Troy Williams from deeper than 15 yards:
Following the loss on Thursday, Graham admits that he altered his defensive scheme leading up to the team’s game against Utah in an effort to rectify the team’s big play vulnerability.
Arizona State’s defense stayed in a cover four look for most of the game, bringing the blitz far less than it had in the past.
However, the aforementioned four big touchdowns and additional four passing plays of greater than 15 yards proved that the problem runs much deeper than anything schematic.
“We’ve just got to get better, that’s it,” Graham said. “We thought we needed to pressure less, our production in sacks and [tackles for loss] has gone way down and we still are having the same issues with big plays.”
The problems started up front where the Utes were able to get most of what they wanted with ease from the first quarter on.
After limiting running back Joe Williams to three yards on four carries in the first quarter, he found his groove in the final three, exposing a run defense that was without Salamo Fiso – who missed the game due to injury.
Williams finished the game with 181 yards on 15 carries – he found the end zone twice.
“He was a tough running back, he ran the ball pretty hard today,” safety Marcus Ball said. “I feel like we did a good job today of making him one-dimensional as far as them throwing the ball a lot more than what they usually do, but he had some big runs down the stretch, he’s a tough back.”
Two – Manny Wilkins’ interceptions in the game, both of which came at crucial points in the game
While Wilkins was running for his life throughout most of the game, his interception in the red zone to open the contest and his turnover that Utah cornerback Raelon Singleton returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter both helped dig the Sun Devils’ grave.
He didn’t look to throw anything away when he ran into trouble, which led to unfavorable field position for Arizona State on multiple occasions.
“I took some critical sacks and I made some critical interceptions down in the red zone,” Wilkins said. “I think that’s one thing that we pride ourselves on is scoring in the red zone, regardless of if it’s a touchdown or a field goal. That’s an important part of my job, you know, I’ve just got to live and learn from it and grow from it.”
Wilkins started to develop a strong chemistry with freshman N’Keal Harry throughout, targeting the 6-foot-4 receiver a total of 12 times – eight of which were caught.
Harry posted the first 100-yard game of his career, going for 114 yards through the air. He also threw a pass in the contest and carried the ball 31 yards for a touchdown on a broken screen play in the second quarter.
His impact on the game opened Graham’s eyes.
“That guy is a warrior,” Graham said. “I mean, unbelievable for a freshman, he’s a guy that, speed, physicality and finish that’s what that guy does every play. I walked up to him afterwards and I was just so impressed with how he’s playing. He’s competitive and he has what you want in a player, I was very, very impressed with him.”
11 and 22 – Times Manny Wilkins was sacked in the contest and number of Arizona State offensive plays that went for negative yards.
Manny Wilkins certainly didn’t have his best game of the season, but his offensive line didn’t do him any sort of favors.
“Our goal is to go into each game, no negatives and 100 percent ball security,” Graham said. “I really felt like our single focus as a team was own the ball, own the ball.”
The unit was without starters Sam Jones and Stephon McCray, causing shifts along the line as well as substitutions.
It was evident in the running game, also. The Sun Devils managed just 94 yards on 28 carries.
Arizona State will have two more chance to win its sixth game and, in the process, seal a bowl berth. The team will travel to Seattle on Saturday to take on No. 4 Washington before returning to Arizona for the Territorial Cup with the Wildcats in Tucson.
Right now, the focus has shifted to earning that last win and salvaging what once looked like a somewhat promising season.
“We’ve got a lot to play for and we’ve got a lot to coach for,” Graham said. “These seniors have meant a lot to me and so it’s frustrating, really frustrating. That’s when you find out what you’re made of, we’ll rise again.”