ASU bounces back with impressive rout of Utah
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State coach Todd Graham cautioned ahead of Saturday's matchup with Utah that the home tilt would be no cakewalk.
"I hope our guys don’t think it's going to be some sort of 48-14 deal, because it's not," Graham warned, displaying appropriate respect for Utah's touted defense.
He predicted correctly that the score would not be 48-14, but that was about all his assertion got right. ASU dismantled Utah on both sides of the field in a 37-7 win Saturday night, responding purposefully to a tough loss to Missouri a week earlier and adding a must-win game to its bowl resume.
"That was a good football team, and we totally dominated them," Graham said. "Our guys came out and played really well and executed a really good plan. I don’t think it could have been any better."
The Sun Devils (3-1) needed to bounce back strong after dropping a heartbreaker in Columbia last weekend. They had multiple opportunities to win that game but ultimately beat themselves with turnovers and special-teams miscues, failing their first road test of the year.
"Last week, we just didn't have a great week of focus," ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly said. "This week, we focused a lot more on the little things and practicing well. It shows on Saturday."
Utah presented what Graham described as ASU's greatest defensive challenge yet. The Utes entered the week ranked 15th nationally in total defense, allowing 268.67 yards per game. The Sun Devils had topped that before halftime and finished with 512 total yards.
"Didn't see that coming," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "The speed, yes, we knew they were fast, but I didn't see the lopsidedness of the whole affair coming.
"We knew we were up against a very good football team, but we were never really in the game."
Kelly abused Utah's defense, regularly finding receivers wide open in what was his best game as a starter. He finished 19 of 26 passing with 326 yards and three touchdowns. It was a significant rebound for Kelly, who nearly rallied ASU to victory last week but turned the ball over three times. He went without an interception Saturday for the third time this season.
Kelly's performance might not have been possible without a stellar night from ASU's receivers. After being challenged to step up before the Missouri game and again before playing Utah, the wideouts finally broke through Saturday. Four receivers finished with more than 50 receiving yards, and nine players caught a pass.
The offensive display could hardly have been predicted given Utah's experienced defense, but the Sun Devils insisted they were confident they would be able to reinvigorate the offense after a down week. They did so quickly, jumping out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter.
"We were up really quick, so we just came after them," Kelly said. "We had a great game plan coming in, and we had a great week of practice. We just came out strong. They’re a great defense, and they’re going to be a great defense throughout the rest of the year."
The supposedly sound Utah defense also gave Graham some motivation for his defense.
"I told our guys I wanted people to leave tonight talking about our defense," Graham said. "I think they did."
The ASU defense finished with three takeaways, four sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Just as the offense insisted it expected to score with ease, the defense maintained they expected to shut down Utah's offense.
"I'm surprised we gave up that touchdown," senior linebacker Brandon Magee said. "We felt like we should shut them out. We talked about it in meetings."
If not for 51 penalty yards, ASU's performance Saturday might have come close to perfection. The Sun Devils had zero turnovers after committing four last week. They cleaned up they special-teams issues and didn't give away field position. They looked like the team that was dominant in the season's first two weeks.
The win gives ASU back the momentum it had built up in an impressive 2-0 start and puts the Sun Devils halfway to bowl eligibility, which seems a realistic goal with at least three more winnable games on the schedule. But with road games upcoming against Cal, Oregon State, USC and Arizona, beating Utah at home was a must.
"We're trying to get this Pac-12 championship," ASU defensive lineman Will Sutton said. "It started today. It's a whole new season for us."
ASU is now again faced with the challenge of proving it can perform on the road, something it could have accomplished against Missouri. The Sun Devils have been haunted by road woes for the better part of a decade, and next week's matchup with Cal presents perhaps ASU's worst demon: Memorial Stadium. ASU has not won in Berkeley since 1997.
"We’re already thinking about Cal," Graham said. "It’s Pac-12, and you have to bring it every single week. We have a lot of things we can do better than we did tonight. I like this team, and we have to find a way to go 2-0 (in conference play)."