(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Senior night is meant to be filled with emotions. However, on Thursday, No. 13 Utah made Arizona State feel all the wrong emotions, as they thwarted the Sun Devils upset bid and rode a strong final three quarters to a 49-26 victory.
“My thoughts are with our seniors,” Todd Graham said. “Obviously not the outcome we wanted, but I’m very grateful for what those guys have done here, especially at Sun Devil Stadium.”
It marked the fourth consecutive defeat suffered by ASU, who used trickery and deception to gain an early lead before ill-timed penalties and poor defense washed all semblance of momentum away.
Red hot start
In the first quarter, ASU rode a pair of fumble recoveries to a quick 13-0 lead, which was also thanks in large part to two field goals from the NCAA all-time leader, Zane Gonzalez.
Utah was very slow coming out of the gates, fumbling on two of the first six plays. George Lea recovered a botched snap on the first play of the game. Just five Utes plays from scrimmage later, Laiu Moeakiola recovered a fumble after a pitch by quarterback Troy Williams went awry.
Essentially the Sun Devils only blemish of the quarter was when Marcus Williams intercepted Manny Wilkins in the end zone. Jay Jay Wilson was open on the play, but Wilkins waited too long to pass him the ball.
“If we wouldn’t have turned the ball over in the end zone, we would have went into halftime ahead,” Graham said.
Kalen Ballage showed shades of his early-season self in the beginning stages. He was also the primary beneficiary of Demario Richard getting limited opportunities. Richard missed the Oregon game and did not appear on Thursday night until early on in the second quarter.
Ironically, the biggest impact from Ballage came as a receiver and was highlighted by his 71-yard reception that set up his rushing touchdown.
He was enabled in part by the increased mobility of Wilkins, who struggled to complete passes in the first half but looked a lot more potent in the pocket than in weeks past. However, the end zone interception wasted arguably their most prime opportunity of the game.
After getting Kareem Orr and Armand Perry back from injury, the Sun Devils defense looked like a whole new species, but only for the first quarter. They held Utah to just 38 total yards over the first four drives, but the Utes flipped the script the rest of the way, exposing the ASU defense and making it look a lot like the unit we have seen most of the season.
Defense comes back to earth
While the unit had their bright spots later on, they were few and far between. Williams showed why the Utes are among the Pac-12’s best, completing 64, 27, and 17 yard passes for touchdowns in the second quarter alone. Williams had entered the game averaging just one touchdown pass per game, but it was hard to tell due to the four that he threw during the night.
Rae Singleton was the recipient of three of those touchdown passes, including a fourth quarter catch that changed a one possession game to a two possession contest.
Graham mentioned that the goal was for the Sun Devils defense to keep the ball in front of them by playing a cover four, which they were unsuccessful in doing.
Despite a lot of the troubles, Graham complimented a few players on defense, including Laiu Moeakiola, who he said played “lights out.” He also heaped praise upon D.J. Calhoun for essentially filling the role of the injured Salamo Fiso.
“I’m really proud of D.J. Calhoun because with Salamo out it’s really hard to communicate,” Graham said.
The one bright spot that ASU’s defense had against Williams was that he was inefficient on the ground. Outside of an 11-yard carry, he was essentially a non-factor.
Harry does it all
It seems as if every week the legend of N’Keal Harry is growing. In this week’s episode, he threw for 46 yards – including a deep bomb to Fred Gammage –, ran for 31, and had 114 receiving, resulting in a total of 191 yards.
His craziest theatrics came when he dropped a screen pass on an intended trick play, picked it up, and evaded numerous defenders on his way to a 31-yard rushing touchdown.
“That was special,” Wilkins said about the play. “You don’t see that from many guys. Some guys throw that away, some guys might have got tackled, but he made something happen and that’s what he came here to do. He’s really stepped up and has matured and is letting people know that just because he is a freshman doesn’t mean he can’t go out there and let people know that he is the best player on that field.”
That gave everyone in attendance perhaps the most accurate glance at just how talented he could be.
“That guy is a warrior,” Graham said. “Unbelievable for a freshman. Speed, physicality, and finish, that’s what that guy does every play. I walked up to him afterwards and I’m just so impressed with how he has played. He’s competitive and he has what you want in a player.”
The irony of it all was that the freshman’s crowning performance came on senior night.
Williams, Utes’ defense secure the victory
Formerly retired Utah running back Joe Williams was quieted in the first half, running for only 26 yards, but he flipped the script in the final 30 minutes.
His presence was finally made known when he took a carry 82 yards to the end zone. On the following carry, he ran for 28 yards.
During garbage time in the fourth quarter, he carried for 40 yards, his third massive run of the night.
“He ran the ball pretty hard today,” bandit safety Marcus Ball said about Williams. “I feel like we did a good job today as far as making them one-dimensional. They were throwing the ball more than they usually do, but he had some big runs down the stretch.”
All of those runs strongly skewed his 12.1 yards per carry average, but the 155 second half yards surely helped.
“The big plays were the difference,” Graham remarked.
Of course, his defense made his effort look even more impressive. ASU had only 125 total second half yards.
In total, they sacked Wilkins 11 times and had 22 tackles for a loss.
“They did a really good job of scheming us up and game planning for the things we do,” Wilkins said. “I took some critical sacks and had some critical interceptions down in the red zone.”
When ASU tried to drive down nine in the fourth quarter, Wilkins was picked off by Chase Hansen, who practically walked into the end zone to put the final nail in the Sun Devils’ coffin.
In addition to their fourth straight loss, ASU may now have to rely on a win against Arizona in order to make a bowl game, as No. 4 Washington awaits next Saturday.