Dormant for three quarters, No. 23 Arizona State played the fourth quarter like a champion. In so doing, the Sun Devils took another big step to becoming one.
It was not easy. Utah shut down ASU’s high-powered offense for the better part of three quarters at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but quarterback Taylor Kelly led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives and the defense had interceptions on the Utes’ final two possessions in a come-from-behind 20-19 victory Saturday.
“We fight through adversity,” Kelly said.
With that, the Sun Devils put themselves in prime position to win their first Pac-12 South title in the third year of the expanded conference. ASU (7-2, 5-1) controls its own destiny with games remaining against Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona. Only the UCLA game is on the road.
Win out and ASU will play for a Rose Bowl berth on Dec. 7 in a game that looks likely to be a rematch of a 42-28 loss to Stanford after the No. 5 Cardinal beat Oregon 26-20 on Thursday to take control of the Pac-12 North.
There is a long road to travel, but ASU on Saturday did what good teams do, avoiding an upset and making the critical plays against a Utah team that may be a short on respect nationally but remains the only team to have beaten Stanford this season.
That it was close, closer than many expected and not secured until Will Sutton’s interception with 1:01 remaining, was irrelevant to the Sun Devils.
“We got to keep getting wins. That’s all that matters,” Sutton said.
“It’s about wins and losses right now.”
All the momentum ASU built in dominating victories over the Washington schools the last two weeks vanished for about 45 minutes at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains.
But Kelly and the defense provided the antidote.
“It doesn’t matter if it was 50 or one point,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “It ain’t about offense or defense. Everybody is going to talk about the offense. Well, maybe they are going to talk about the defense (now).
“That’s what championship teams do. They find ways to win like that. I think this team has tremendous character.”
Utah (4-5, 1-5) used the bye week to put in some new looks on both sides of the ball, and it took awhile for the Sun Devils to adjust after Kelly led them on a 71-yard touchdown drive on the game’s first series.
ASU had a season-low 293 yards but stayed in the game by limiting Utah to just 247 yards.
“I’m not going to lie: They ran things we didn’t work on,” Graham said.
Utah used its wrinkles to take a 19-7 lead and seemingly felt so good about its defensive plan that the Utes went into a conservative shell after their last touchdown with 5:19 left in the third.
ASU responded. Kelly took the Sun Devils on a seven-play, 70-yard drive to start the fourth quarter. He completed two passes, Marion Grice had 20 yards on two carries, and Kelly finished it with a read option 2-yard touchdown run when the defense followed Grice. It was 19-14 with 13:12 left.
Sutton and the defense then forced three three-and-outs before Kelly took ASU 81 yards in six plays, the biggest a 38-yard run by Grice. Kelly’s 14-yard pass to Richard Smith with 2:37 left made it 20-19.
Then the defense took over.
Robert Nelson, beaten on Utah’s last touchdown pass, came up with his seventh interception of the season on the Utes’ next play from scrimmage, when he reached up for overthrown pass near the right sideline and kept one foot inbounds as he came down.
Utah got the ball back once more and got one first down before Sutton leaped in front of a Wilson pass at the line of scrimmage and made the catch. Blocked initially, Sutton rolled to his left and read Wilson’s eyes, making it appear the ball was thrown right to him.
“Great players made great plays,” Graham said.
“We fight for each other,” Nelson said. “We’re big on that brotherhood, and we fight for each other. We never put our heads down.”
Sutton, an 2012 All-American, was mobbed on the bench after his pick.
“Everybody was more excited than me. I was trying to catch my breath,” Sutton said. “Everybody was hitting me in the head. We fought and we came out ahead. It’s tough to play up here. Stanford took a loss here.