SALT LAKE CITY -- Shrinking Saturday's game here between Arizona State and No. 4 Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium down to one long sentence might read something like this:
ASU's defensive front seven played incredible through three-plus quarters, its special teams were amazing until a very costly two play sequence of junior De'Chavon Hayes fair catching the ball inside the 5 yard line early fourth quarter and junior punter Matt Haack subsequently shanking a punt, and ASU's offense wasn't nearly good enough for it to capitalize on a game that saw more than enough from the other two phases for it to emerge victorious.
ASU was in great position to win despite its offense playing flat-out poorly until it fell off the rails with 13:15 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
ASU was leading 18-14, Utah's first-team all-conference punter Tom Hackett punted the ball on a line drive rugby style and Hayes made a big mistake to fair catch a ball at the 5 yard line that was definitely going into the end zone. That cost ASU 15 yards on starting field position in what was clearly a field position game. ASU got an offside penalty that make it first and 5 and then ASU sophomore Kalen Ballage ran for two yards to make it second and 3. Then Mike Norvell calls for a long bomb throw to ASU senior receiver D.J. Foster, which we'd argue was a bad call.
Foster wasn't playing well, may have not been at full strength, had a few drops already and the deep shots weren't open all game. ASU wasn't moving the ball well and needed high percentage plays to try to get the chains moved to give it breathing room. Instead, the ball is incomplete deep, never had a chance, the third and 3 play is also incomplete pass to Foster and ASU has to punt from its 12 yard line with Haack backed up to the end zone. Haack ends up shanking the punt badly, a 20 yard punt that goes only to the ASU 32 yard line.
ASU's special teams play was so excellent that to have those two plays be the biggest part of the key sequence was a shame for its overall effort. Of course later, ASU special teams sensation Das Tautalatasi kick catch interference penalty was 15 yards and set Utah up with another short field but I think the game plays out differently if not for the aforementioned sequence.
After Utah got its first short field, its star running back Devontae Booker -- who had been completely bottled up and only a net 17 rushing yards on 13 carries through the first three quarters -- had two carries to generate a third and 3 and then the Utes called a speed option pitch to Booker in the alley and there was nothing but open field ahead of him on a 25 yard touchdown run that put Utah on top 21-18.
It was a car wreck for ASU, basically, from that Hayes fair catch with 13:15 through the rest of the game as Utah went on a 20-0 run to end the game in a fashion that wasn't really indicative of the overall game.
Earlier on, Utah couldn't run the ball at all and neither could ASU, really. Utah's secondary played better than ASU's secondary though, with Utah senior quarterback Travis Wilson able to take advantage of some one-on-one opportunities on the occasion he had enough time to operate in the pocket -- and that was only sporadicly the case as Wilson was sacked five times after being sacked only twice through Utah's first five games. Wilson was knocked around a lot more than that but held in there and played a very good football game.
Wilson got more help from his receivers than ASU senior quarterback Mike BercoviciBercovici got from his receivers, and Utah was more sound on the back end. Bercovici didn't play especially well but a lot of the responsibility is shared. The entire ASU offense, other than senior wide receiver Devin Lucien -- six catches for 118 yards -- didn't play well and ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell again put blame on himself after the game.
ASU tight end Kody Kohl had a drop in the end zone that should have been a touchdown from Lucien on a trick play. Yes, it was tough catch to make, but still has to be made. Foster dropped about three or four passes he should have caught including one in the end zone, and Foster didn't look like himself out there and very well may not have been, especially after taking a big second half hit. Kohl had a 31 yard reception wiped away because one of the ASU receivers covered him up on the playing, making him ineligible.
The Sun Devil offensive front didn't do enough to establish a run game in a way that helped offset sophomore running back Demario Richard not playing in the game, particularly with ASU playing in a hostile road environment and with ASU receivers not doing enough to help Bercovici.
ASU averaged just 3.6 yards per play on offense, with 257 total yards from scrimmage on 70 plays. That just isn't nearly good enough and ASU's defense and special teams held up probably about as long as it could with its offense struggling as much as it did.
Only 28 of ASU's 70 plays from scrimmage were run plays, which is a remarkably ratio in game that was low scoring and position-centric through the first three quarters. ASU's senior-laden offensive line, which includes three returning starters on the interior, was supposed to be the backbone of the team's offense but it hasn't materialized. Bercovici was sacked five times to bring ASU's season total to 21 sacks, among the worst in the Pac-12. Utah's defensive front won the battle for the line of scrimmage. The Sun Devil offensive linemen were just not good enough.
There were some tremendous defensive performances tonight by ASU that will go largely undiscussed due to the outcome. Sophomore defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood won a vast majority of his reps and was often disruptive in the backfield, finishing with seven tackles. Sophomore linebacker Christian Sam may have played his best game and was very responsible for how well ASU shut down Booker early on. Utah didn't really target or take advantage of senior safety Jordan Simone, and Simone had a team-best 12 tackles -- nine solo -- and two sacks. Junior linebacker Salamo Fiso was his typical impressive self against the run and on nickel downs, sophomore linebacker D.J. Calhoun had two sacks. Redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson had some very good pass rush reps, nearly missing Wilson several times and finishing with three tackles and a shared sack.
It wasn't all good for ASU's defense, of course, as talented but developing feshman safety Kareem Orr had several assignment breakdowns that resulted in big plays and Utah heavily targeted senior cornerback Kweishi Brown and had more success against him than probably any team ASU's played to this point. Orr is going to be better but just isn't there yet. Brown is better, but didn't have his best game tonight.
Of course, ASU was great on special teams through the first three quarters, led by junior Tim White and his 100 yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and junior kicker Zane Gonzalez who was 3-of-3 on field goals and put all five kickoffs into the end zone, the only one of which that wasn't a touchback being a trick play attempt by Utah that resulted in a safety.
The overriding takeaway from this game though is that none of ASU's veteran offensive players who have been around the program for multiple years, did anywhere near enough, and if not for the excellence on special teams and great play from ASU's front seven in the first three quarters, ASU wouldn't have had the chance it did to win in the fourth before things fell apart. Ultimately, that's got to fall on the offensive coordinator, particularly when he's had so much success in previous years, and is so well compensated.
A strong case could be made -- and we have said it in the past -- that Bercovici's strengths are not ideally suited to the rest of ASU's personnel nor its preferred philosophical approach, and that has often presented itself this year as a bunch of frayed pieces that ASU is trying to fit together without as much success as its grown accustomed to.