No. 22 Arizona State nearly was dealt a crucial loss Saturday by perhaps the easiest opponent left on the schedule, trailing Utah for most of the game before mounting a fourth-quarter comeback to escape Salt Lake City with a win.
Though Utah is now 1-5 in Pac-12 play, there was nothing easy about beating the Utes. The Sun Devils (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12) had to claw their way back for a 20-19 win after trailing 19-7. With the win, ASU maintained its one-game lead in the Pac-12 South and took another big step toward winning the division and getting the chance to play for a Rose Bowl berth.
“It doesn’t matter if it was 50 or one point,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “That’s what championship teams do. They find ways to win like that.”
Things only get tougher with Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona still on the schedule. But before ASU begins that tough stretch run, here’s one more look back at Saturday’s gusty win in Utah. TURNING POINT
ASU didn’t take the lead until there were about two and a half minutes to play, but the momentum swung in its favor early in the fourth quarter. The Sun Devils needed just 1:39 to score and cut their deficit to 19-14. ASU did punt on three of its next four offensive possessions, but it only needed the one score to go ahead, and the defense was in lockdown mode, allowing Utah just 17 yards of offense in the fourth quarter. OFFENSIVE MVP
Quarterback Taylor Kelly. Under heavy pressure most of the game, Kelly battled to get things done on offense. His legs again proved key, as he scored two of ASU’s three touchdowns. The third was a 14-yard pass to Richard Smith to put ASU ahead. Most impressive was Kelly’s poise in tough situations. He did not make hasty decisions under pressure and put the ball in jeopardy, nor did he let the very loud stadium atmosphere force him into making mistakes.
Defensive tackle Will Sutton. Besides a whole lot of dominance in the trenches, Sutton may have had the play of the game, and Graham couldn’t stop talking about it. With just over a minute left, Sutton jumped near the line of scrimmage to intercept a Travis Wilson pass and end Utah’s chances. Sutton finished with a career-high nine tackles, one for a loss, and a pass breakup.
THREE THINGS WE LEARNED
— ASU has learned to be resilient. This wasn’t the first time the Sun Devils have battled adversity and come out on top, but when they’ve faced it to the degree they did Saturday, the result has usually been different. Think Notre Dame last month or Missouri last season. The way things were going against Utah, ASU looked like it was going to head home with disappointment but instead steeled itself for an improbable fourth-quarter comeback.
It would have been painfully familiar for ASU fans to watch the Sun Devils lose in a game in which the offense couldn’t find a rhythm and they trailed most of the way, but they refused to let frustration take over. They adjusted to things Graham admitted they had not practiced for, and with patience and discipline, ASU kept fighting and finally broke through with time running out.
That’s the kind of resilience teams need to win big games and, ultimately, championships. ASU still has much to accomplish to win a Pac-12 South title, but the way it handled itself against Utah bodes well for future challenges.
— ASU is not all offense. All the talk leading up to this game was ASU’s offense and whether Utah would be able to stop it. The Utes did for most of the game, putting the spotlight on the Sun Devils defense, which turned in a pretty stellar performance.
Throughout the game but particularly in the fourth quarter, the defense gave ASU a chance to come back. From heavy pressure up front to aggressive secondary play, the defense had one its best games under Graham. Most impressive had to be the pair of late stops that iced the game with ASU holding a one-point lead.
Utah quarterback Travis Wilson entered the game with 14 interceptions on the year but hadn’t thrown one all day until safety Robert Nelson picked him off with two and a half minutes remaining. ASU didn’t score on the takeaway but it was a key momentum play. Then, on the Utes’ last chance for a game-winning drive, Sutton finished them off.
It was a reminder that, for as good as ASU’s offense has been, the program is still built on defense. Graham has made defense paramount, and it was the Sun Devils’ calling card in his first season. It’s a good sign the rest of the way that if the offense isn’t having its best day, the defense can keep ASU in games.
— The line may be the key to this offense. Of course, offensive line play is always important, but this game made it pretty clear it’s the difference with this offense right now. Utah’s defensive line pushed ASU’s offensive line around for much of the game, getting significant pressure on quarterback Taylor Kelly, who was sacked six times.
And in large part because of that, the offense couldn’t get rolling like it had the previous few weeks. The run game was spotty and Kelly didn’t have enough time to work for most of the day. But when the line did hold up against Utah’s very talented defensive front, ASU made things happen. The line was at its best in the fourth quarter while Kelly led the Sun Devils on two scoring drives to pull out thewin. ASU will need that kind of line play the next three weeks or it may not be able to escape another close call like this one. WHERE THEY STAND
ASU didn’t score Saturday like it has most of the season, so it fell in the national rankings for most offensive categories. But a superb defensive effort saw the unit climb in the rankings. Here’s where the Sun Devils stand:
— Total offense: 17th with 490.4 yards per game (down from 10th) — Total defense: 14th with 332.7 yards allowed per game (up from 18th) — Scoring offense: 8th with 43.7 points per game (down from 6th) — Scoring defense: 55th with 25.2 points allowed per game (up from 62nd) — Rushing defense: 22nd with 126.2 rushing yards allowed per game (no movement) — Passing defense: 19th with 206.4 passing yards allowed per game (up from 40th) — Fewest penalty yards per game: 5th with 29.89 penalty yards per game (up from 10th)
ODDS AND ENDS
— With its comeback, ASU put an end to a long and impressive streak. Utah had won 49 consecutive games when leading at halftime, as was the case Saturday. That was the second-longest active streak in college football.
— Over his past four games, Kelly has seven rushing touchdowns and 236 rushing yards (with yards lost on sacks excluded) on 33 carries. He has scored with his legs twice in each of the last three games.
— Viliami Moeakiola made his first career start at spur linebacker, getting the nod over Anthony Jones. Moeakiola notched two tackles, including half a tackle for loss, but left the game and did not return after suffering a head injury in the second quarter.
— An excellent example of ASU’s discipline on the field: Utah running back Kelvin York let his temper get the better of him in the second quarter after being wrapped up by a few ASU defenders. York shoved ASU linebacker Chris Young and got in his face. Young didn’t react, and York got flagged for a personal foul.
— The Sun Devils improved to 8 of 11 in forcing a fourth down when calling a timeout prior to an opponent’s third down.
— ASU and Utah combined for just 540 yards of total offense. ASU had totaled more on its own in its previous two games.
— The Sun Devils have now won 10 straight games over the Utes.
— ASU running back Marion Grice, who had 136 rushing yards Saturday, has not reached the end zone since the Oct. 19 win over Washington. Despite the scoring drought, Grice is still tied for first in the nation in scoring with 12.0 points per game.
— Grice finished with 219 all-purpose yards Saturday to extend his streak of at least 100 all-purpose yards in a game to 11. That stands as the fourth-longest active streak in the nation.
— ASU moved up to No. 21 in the newest Associated Press poll released Sunday.