Originally Published: October 22, 2017 5:58 a.m.
SALT LAKE CITY — Arizona State suddenly resembles a serious Pac-12 South title contender. The Sun Devils have transformed their identity by breaking out an unexpected tool from the toolbox.
These days they are dominating teams with a stingy defense.
Utah could not figure out how to move the ball for the better part of four quarters in a 30-10 loss to the Sun Devils on Saturday. Arizona State forced four turnovers and allowed the Utes to gain just 4.4 yards per play.
The Sun Devils have allowed just two touchdowns in their last nine quarters of football.
“We just said early in the year to keep plugging, keep plugging and something’s going to break,” linebacker Christian Sam said. “And now the dam’s broke.”
Dominating Utah also extended to the other side of the ball. Arizona State made the things it did on defense by also breaking down the Utes with a punishing running attack. Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage combined for 168 yards on the ground.
It helped the Sun Devils hold the ball for more than 36 minutes against a Utah team that led the Pac-12 in time of possession.
“It feels sensational,” Richard said. “We got everything gelling together and we are rolling now.”
Manny Wilkins threw for 140 yards on 19-of-29 passing to help Arizona State (4-3, 3-1 Pac-12) snap a seven-game road losing streak.
Tyler Huntley started for Utah at quarterback after sitting out losses to USC and Stanford with a shoulder injury. Huntley struggled in his return, throwing for 155 yards and four interceptions on 19-of-35 passing.
Arizona State’s defensive domination of Washington turned out to be no fluke from the beginning. The Sun Devils shut Utah down cold before halftime. They allowed the Utes to gain just 93 total yards and seven first downs in the first half.
Two first half drives for Utah (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12) ended with interceptions from Huntley.
“There were no surprises out there,” Sam said. “We saw everything we expected from practice. We just had to execute.”
Arizona State mounted several long drives to take a 16-0 halftime lead. Brandon Ruiz made field goals from 47, 40 and 30 yards in the first quarter. The Sun Devils broke through with their first touchdown on a 1-yard run from Demario Richard with 40 seconds remaining in the half.
“We’ve just been trying to find our groove, like a timing belt on an old car,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “We’re getting better every week. I think we were better today than we were last week.”
Matt Gay made a 53 yard field goal to cap off Utah’s opening drive of the third quarter. Arizona State answered when Wilkins stretched over the goal line on a 1-yard keeper, extending its lead to 23-3 with 4:45 left in the third quarter.
The Utes kept the drive alive with a pair of targeting penalties that led to ejections for Donovan Thompson and Corrion Ballard. Ballard’s penalty gave Arizona State first-and-goal at the Utah 1 after the Sun Devils were facing fourth down.
“We didn’t do our assignments to the best of our abilities,” Utah linebacker Kavika Luafatasaga said. “That was it.”
Jay Jay Wilson put the final nail in the coffin for Utah when he returned an interception 20 yards for a score midway through the fourth quarter. Huntley’s fourth interception of the game gave the Sun Devils a 30-3 lead.
“Nothing was good,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We are disjointed. There is not a lot of flow. We do not have an offensive rhythm.”
Utah’s lone touchdown came on a 2-yard run from Devontae Henry-Cole with 2:41 remaining.
Arizona State rushed for 205 yards and two touchdowns on 46 carries. It marked the fourth consecutive game that Utah allowed an opponent to gain at least 150 yards on the ground.
Richard led the way with a season-high 93 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Ballage chipped in another 75 yards on 14 carries. The Sun Devils produced seven plays where they gained 10 or more yards on the ground.
On Arizona State’s first touchdown drive, Richard ripped off a 25-yard run and then Ballage followed with a 35-yard gain on the next play. It marked the longest back-to-back runs from scrimmage by a Sun Devil running back so far this season.
“We came out with an attitude,” Wilkins said. “The guys knew we had to run the football if we were going to win this game. We creased a couple runs that were big momentum runs.
Arizona State: With the Sun Devils making serious strides on defense, Arizona State may be USC’s biggest remaining obstacle to a Pac-12 South title. Arizona State hosts the Trojans in Tempe next Saturday. The Sun Devils are playing sharp on offense as well. If they beat USC, a soft November slate opens the door for them to run the table to close out the regular season.
Utah: Two emotional close losses to Stanford and USC took a huge toll. Utah played flat and uninspired on both sides of the ball. The Utes are likely out of the Pac-12 South title chase now, but they still have chances to turn it around with winnable games against Oregon and UCLA over the next two weeks. Utah needs to get more out of its offense to do it.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils host USC next Saturday.
Utah: The Utes travel to Oregon next Saturday.