ASU offense struggles in second Pac-12 loss of the season

The Sun Devils started the game with a near-flawless special teams performance in Salt Lake City, but crumbled offensively and on special teams in the second half of a 34-18 loss to No. 4 Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY -- While most of the Utah crowd was still filing in with less than an hour until kickoff at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, one Utah fan stood out from the sea of red.

Standing up in his seat, his voice boomed as he yelled one word to the Utes’ players warming up on the field: Payback. Payback for the 11-straight Arizona State wins against the Utes that dated back to 1977 and especially payback for the Utes’ 19-16 overtime loss to the Sun Devils last season in Tempe.

And on a rainy Saturday night in Salt Lake City, No. 4 Utah delivered. Coming into a hostile road environment against the No. 4 team in the country, the Sun Devils self-destructed in the game's final 20 minutes, losing 34-18 to the Utes’ in front of 46,192 in attendance at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

ASU (4-3, 2-2 in the Pac-12) couldn’t hand the Utes’ (6-0, 3-0) their first loss of the season and instead was hurt by self-inflicted wounds on special teams and on offense. 

With ASU sophomore running back Demario Richard dressed out, but not taking a single snap in the game due to his right knee injury, the feature running back duties were handed over to sophomore running back Kalen Ballage. But with Ballage's 18 carries only going for only 49 yards and ASU senior quarterback Mike Bercovici completing only 20 of 41 of his passes for a total of 242 yards, the Sun Devils offense stalled once again.

"It obviously hurts us not having Demario," ASU head coach Todd Graham said in his post-game press conference. "There was several times in the game I pointed out to the offense, the inside zone was there, we just weren’t hitting it so I think that hurt us with him not playing.” 

Dropped passes, overthrown passes, inability to convert on third down, and inability to score a single touchdown on offense were the continuing trends throughout the game. One of the glaring mistakes was ASU's inability to convert in the endzone. While the Sun Devils were 2 of 2 in the red zone, both were field goals.

ASU's offense had zero touchdowns on the night. Its only touchdown of the game was a 100-yard kickoff return by ASU junior receiver Tim White with 4:42 left in the first quarter. 

In ASU's first red zone opportunity with just under three minutes to go in the first quarter, ASU senior wide receiver D.J. Foster dropped a touchdown pass headed to the corner of the end zone on second and 13. It was one of about three or four drops Foster had on the night and he ended the game with three catches for 11 yards with a long of 9 yards. 

But Foster wasn't the only ASU player to have a blatant drop in the end zone. Just under six minutes in the third quarter, off a second and goal from the 10-yard line, junior tight end Kody Kohl dropped a touchdown pass the back of the end zone off a pass from ASU senior wide receiver Devin Lucien. In total, ASU left eight points on the board in those two series alone. Lucien finished the night with six catches for 118 yards. 

In addition to drops in the end zone and all over the field, penalties from ASU were also costly. Just before halftime, Bercovici threw a pass from ASU's 29-yard line down the middle for a supposed 31-yard gain to Kohl, but the play was called back after Kohl was dubbed an illegal receiver downfield. ASU eventually just ran out the clock and went into halftime down 14-10. 

"We can't miss opportunities," ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. "There was a lot of plays tonight, a little bit different outcome might have changed some things. Tremendous job by Utah the way their kids played. I thought they did a good job. We didn't play well enough." 

But ASU's loss Saturday night doesn't mean the Sun Devils are out of the Pac-12 South race. In 2011, ASU beat Utah to start 3-0 in conference play and was dubbed the favorites to win the South. But then ASU lost five of their last six games and consequently fired then-head coach Dennis Erickson. With Utah's win Saturday, they are now the favorites to win the South being 3-0 in conference play, but like ASU's team in 2011, a lot can change in the last half of the season. 

A positive in light of the Saturday's loss has to be how ASU's defense performed getting pressure on Utah senior quarterback Travis Wilson and stopping the run. After Utah only gave up two sacks in five games, ASU was able to sack Wilson five times on the night. ASU forced Utah into three three and outs in its first four series and had 13 tackles for loss. Wilson finished with 26 out of 36 completions for 297 yards and two touchdowns. 

In the run game, Utes’ senior running back Devontae Booker was held to 16 yards at halftime and finished the night with 21 carries for 188 yards, but gained the majority of his points on his 62-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. 

"Our plan was to obviously stop the run," Graham said. "Obviously we’re a team what we do is get tackles for loss on base downs and then we force third and long and we get after the quarterback and pretty much all that went to plan.”

However, ASU's secondary didn't fair so well. 

“We left a couple of guys uncovered, we had a some guys come off their men and stuff like that," Graham said. "Just eight or nine errors that we don’t make because we need to shut him down. The way the game was going it was going to be a defensive struggle and so we made too many mental mistakes in the backend that hurt us.”

Now combining ASU's defensive struggles defending vertical shots, its offense woes and special teams blunders, it's no clue to why the Sun Devils weren't able to pick up the pieces and widen their four-point lead headed into the fourth quarter. 

With 1:30 left in the third quarter, the Sun Devils were leading 18-14 after the Sun Devils drove down the field on the drive that resulted in a 44-yard field goal by ASU junior kicker Zane Gonzalez

But after that, everything unraveled for ASU. After Utah had to punt from its own 48-yard line with 13:15 left in the fourth quarter, ASU junior running back De'Chavon Hayes fielded the ball at the Sun Devils' own 5-yard line. After a two-yard gain by Ballage on first and 5 after a Utah offsides penalty, the Sun Devils took a shot about 40 yards downfield to Foster, but the pass was incomplete.

On fourth down, ASU junior punter Matt Haack was forced to punt from ASU’s 12-yard line, but ended up shanking the punt and Utah got possession at ASU’s 32-yard line.

"Obviously the big change was getting backed up on our own end," Graham said. "Being inside our oen 10, not converting that series on second and 4. Then we don't convert that series and shanked that punt out." 

With appealing field position in ASU territory, off a third and 3 with 10:41 remaining in the fourth quarter, Booker ran in for a 25-yard touchdown to give the Utes’ a 21-18 lead. 

Then on the Sun Devils next drive, they were again unable to get anything going on offense after starting at their own 25-yard line. Haack was forced to punt from ASU’s 1-yard line and while the punt was fielded at the 49-yard line, ASU was called for a kick, catch 15-yard interference penalty that gave Utah starting field position at ASU’s 33-yard line.

Despite a sack by senior safety Jordan Simone on a second and 10 on the 22, the Utes managed to boot in a 43-yard field goal by junior kicker Andy Phillips to make the score 24-18 with 6:35 left in the third quarter.

Only down six points, the Sun Devils had a chance to drive down the field and potentially take the lead off a touchdown, but instead on ASU’s first play on their ensuring drive, Ballage fumbled the ball, Bercovici recovered the fumble, but then he fumbled as well, turning the ball over to the Utes at ASU’s 25-yard line with 6:28 left to go in the fourth quarter.

ASU had no turnovers in the game up to that point.

Giving Utah good starting field position again, the Utes’ scored a 35-yard field goal with 4:20 left in the fourth quarter to put them up 27-18 and ultimately sealing the win.

To pad his stats, Booker scored his second touchdown of the night off a 62-yard rush with 1:11 left in the game to give Utah the 33-18 lead and an interception by Utah on the final play of the game capped off a mistake-filled night for the Sun Devils.

It was known coming into the contest that turnovers and special teams were going to be key for both teams to pull out a win – especially on the ASU side. But while the Sun Devils were almost flawless in the first half, they crumbled in the second half with two shanked punts by Haack and a penalty on the kickoff return.

But besides Utah senior punter Tom Hackett doing a good job of flipping the field, Utah didn’t do that well itself on special teams overall.  In seemingly one of the biggest momentum changers of the game with 5:04 left in the third quarter and ASU was trailing 14-13, the Utes’ gave up a safety – and the lead – to the Sun Devils.

After a 28-yard field goal by Gonzalez put the Sun Devils to within a point, Utah initially fielded the kickoff in the end zone, but its return man was called for an illegal forward pass in the end zone, giving the Sun Devils a safety – and a 15-14 lead – with 5:04 left in the third quarter.

It was then the momentum seemed to go in ASU’s way with their field goal on its following drive, but ASU just couldn’t take advantage of its lead and gave away the game on special teams.

"The difference in the game was field position when it counted," Graham said. "Sitting there, we take the lead on a safety and I really thought we were going to win because I didn't think they were going to score. And then the dramatic shift in field position." 

Despite the special tams blunders late, the beginning of the night started well for the Sun Devils. While Utah drew first blood with Wilson's two-yard touchdown strike to tight end Harrison Handley with 4:56 left in the first quarter, it was the Sun Devil special teams play in the first quarter that kept ASU in the game.

On the Utes’ ensuing kickoff after its first touchdown of the night, White took it back 100 yards for a touchdown, tying up the score 7-7 with 4:42 left in the first quarter. White came into Saturday night’s game leading the Pac-12 in average return yards with 28.3.

But ASU’s special teams play didn’t stop there. After the Sun Devils’ defense forced Utah’s offense into a three and out, on the ensuing punt by Utah, Hayes had a 48-yard punt return and was just barely tripped up at Utah’s 13-yard line.

The Sun Devils were unable to score a touchdown on their subsequent drive, but settled for a 34-yard field goal by Gonzalez to put ASU up 10-7 with 2:18 left in the first quarter. Due to its special teams play, ASU only had five offensive yards compared to its 10 points by the end of the first quarter.

By halftime, ASU was down 14-10 and Bercovici completed six of 13 passes for 51 yards and no touchdowns. ASU gained 91 yards of offense, 40 on the ground and 51 in the air. On the other hand, Utah gained 218 yards of offense even with minus-2 rushing yards in the first half. 

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