Ten Takeaways: Utah

Here we take a much more in-depth look at what went wrong for Arizona State in the fourth quarter against Utah Saturday, and what went right through three quarters.

1. Arizona State's defensive front seven played tremendous football and did more than its job Saturday against Utah for the Sun Devils to win against No. 4 Utah if the rest of the team had performed at a similar level. Through three quarters the Utes had minus-21 rushing yards in the game and Utah star senior running back Devontae Booker had been held completely in check, with just 17 net yards on 13 caries and a long of just six yards. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson had run for some key first-downs and big plays in the previous two match ups between the teams, but not in this game. His long run was five yards and when the sacks were included he was at minus-38 yards rushing. You can't ask for anything more from ASU's defensive line and linebackers. In particular, sophomore tackle Tashon Smallwood continues to progress and and should be an all-league candidate as an upperclassmen and sophomore WILL linebacker Christian Sam is one of ASU's best NFL prospects and a star in the making, with junior SAM Salamo Fiso having his typically strong performance. 

2. Utah creatively schemed in this game offensively and showed more sophistication than it has in the past and that was a big factor in its success, and also in the season more broadly. Whereas last season Utah top receiver Kenneth Scott was dominated by ASU cornerback Lloyd Carrington, this year the Utes moved Scott around in their various formations dramatically more and instead of going up against Carrington, almost exclusively targeted ASU field cornerback Kweishi Brown or tried to generate a mismatch with an ASU safety or slot defender. This strategy worked great as Scott came up big, with five catches for 116 yards, including a remarkable diving one-handed grab against Brown for 42 yards that led to a touchdown on the next play. The Utes also made an emphasis on attacking true freshman Kareem Orr in an effort to generate one-on-ones against the field safety, and it led to several big plays including the aforementioned touchdown reception. Aware of ASU's overload blitz tendency, Utah used a cross-formation running back wheel route in the first half for a chunk play to move the chains. 

3. The veteran offensive players for the Sun Devils on offense are not executing at a high enough level for the program to accomplish its goals this season given its overall offensive capability. ASU isn't as potent as it has been in years' past, its offensive line isn't functioning at a productive enough level with its run blocking, and it doesn't have the go-to possession weapon in the passing game. With that being the case, it can't afford to have drops and other costly mistakes, particularly in scoring position. Against Utah, senior D.J. Foster dropped a ball in the end zone that a player as good and as experienced as he is should make. Junior tight end Kody Kohl dropped a pass in the end zone as well and ASU only got six points out of its lone two red zone trips as a result. If those catches are made it's eight more points on the board and a different game heading into the key fourth quarter segment in which ASU had the bottom drop out. In contrast, Scott was pounding his chest after several remarkable catches and Utah had fewer drops and other mistakes, such as play in which Kohl had a catch inside the Utah 40 yard line with less than a minute remaining in the half because he was covered up by a senior ASU receiver at the top of the formation. ASU probably would have got points on that drive but instead came up empty. 

4. This is a complex, multi-faceted issue but ASU's veteran offensive line is just not performing at a high enough level in the run game. It has been too high and lost leverage too often, has had trouble securing blocks enough to allow the slip linemen to release to the second level, and timing has at times been an issue. Senior right guard Vi Teofilo has been a better run blocker than pass protector in his career but 10 months removed from an ACL reconstruction he's not operating quite as well as he has in the past. Senior left guard Christian Westerman has been battling a hand injury and not had his typical potency as a run blocker in recent games, perhaps as a result. Senior center Nick Kelly is a player we expected to compete for all-conference honors but he hasn't taken the same step this season we observed in the last several years. Junior right tackle William McGehee is powerful but has had timing issues with locating his hands and been susceptible to yielding pressure in the B gap of runs to the play side. Against Utah, ASU coaches sold out to zone block in between the tackles, choosing this approach as opposed to pulling a linemen to block the playside linebacker in an effort to provide more opportunities for senior quarterback Mike Bercovici to keep the outside read option. It just didn't work as ASU lost the battle for the line of scrimmage, and this brings us to our next point....

5. ASU really missed sophomore running back starter Demario Richard in this game, and not just as a runner but as a pass blocker because he is clearly better than the alternatives in that regard. Sophomore running back Kalen Ballage struggled in some reps as a protector, and is not as much of an inside zone rusher as Richard, but with Richard on the sidelines due to his right knee injury, ASU kept going to inside zone runs in which Ballage was not hammering the ball as quickly into the line as needed. Ballage is talented to be sure, but more of an outside zone stretch back, or power back who is better with a head of steam built up behind lead blockers from an I-formation type set. This is just part of the way in which all of ASU's offensive pieces aren't fitting together this season. We saw junior De'Chavon Hayes get one carry in the game and he exploded into the hole for an eight yard gain. That's more the type of back for the offensive style. The game plan likely would hae benefited from additional tinkering in light of Ballage being the feature back, as he prefers spilling the ball to the perimeter and running outside anyway. 

6. There appears to be a bit of a disconnect with play calling between ASU coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell. At least a few times this season, Graham has been observed on the sidelines after some crucial play calls asking Norvell why he didn't run the football, and at other times as referenced such situations in his post-game press conferences. That happened again early in the fourth quarter of the game's key play sequence. ASU had a second and 3 on its own 12 yard line and Norvell called a play that kept two tight ends in to block in an effort to get a vertical shot from senior Mike Bercovici to Foster. It was never open and there wasn't a good check down option on the play. After a timeout, ASU failed to convert the third down pass to Foster and even that wasn't a high percentage type of pass. With ASU backed up in its own territory and it being an 18-14 field position game in which Utah wasn't moving the ball on the ground at all and had not scored in two full quarters, Norvell needs to have more consideration of the game's big picture with his play calling. ASU needed a first down there badly to keep its defense off the field a bit longer, give its punter more room, keep the clock moving, etc. As a head coach, Norvell probably sees this differently, or at least he should. The odds of the big play-action pass working to Foster were very low because ASU hadn't converted any of these in the game so Utah's defense wasn't pressing up, and Foster had not shown he was in the rhythm to make such a play. It's too low percentage especially given ASU's challenge of successfully moving the chains on third and 3. It's a play you make from the middle of the field on second and 3 when you have a lot of confidence in your offense to covert a third and 3, but definitely not in this game. ASU punter Matt Haack subsequently shanked the punt 20 yards and Utah started on ASU's 32 yard line. ASU needed to treat first down conversions as more valuable than it did in this game, and in this situation in particular, it's Norvell's responsibility to see that and understand it for what it is. Get another first down or two, get room to breathe, run clock, then punt if you need to. Your defense has done great and Utah needs a touchdown. That's how a defensive head coach sees the game, and ASU has a defensive head coach. But its offensive leader wasn't clearly enough operating from that perspective. 

7. More broadly, this was a great opportunity for ASU to have body blow game plan. There are some game in which you know it's going to be a defensive battle and field position will be of paramount importance and you need to try to wear a cumulative toll on the opponent through physical violence at the point of attack in consideration of being able to exploit that in the fourth quarter, and especially when your team has the lead. ASU did not turn the ball over at all in the first three quarters, so in that regard credit to Bercovici and the players who held onto the football. But ASU still threw the ball more than half of its plays through three quarters and when it did run, didn't inflict a enough of a cumulative  toll because of Ballage not being a punishing runner despite his 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, and the types of plays that were called. There are some games in which you just have to run it with three different backs about 60 percent of the time -- and more on early downs -- in order to try to get consistently manageable third downs. ASU had two running first downs in the game. That's on the offensive line, but also on the offensive game plan, especially when Foster only gets one carry with Richard on the bench. 

8. ASU needs to have more creative run replacement plays and red zone plays in its arsenal in games in which it is struggling to run the football. Yes, there was the trick play pass from Lucien to Kohl that was dropped, but other than that not much that wasn't vanilla. Against Utah, it was very conventional bubble screens to receivers and running backs and tunnel screens. There weren't atypical formations with motions to get quick game screens, cross directional plays to slip backs or tight ends away from motions, sprint outs, speed options, not enough movement of the pocket. Utah hit ASU for a 25 yard touchdown with Booker on a speed option. We didn't see enough of that from ASU, nor enough of an ability to generate advantageous man-to-man match ups. 

9. ASU had an outstanding three quarters of special teams led by the 100 yard touchdown return by junior Tim White and punt return into the red zone by Hayes, along with great early game punting from Haack, 3-of-3 on field goals from sophomore Zane Gonzalez -- who also put every kickoff into the end zone -- and ASU's coverage units also did a tremendous job. But in the fourth quarter, the decision by Hayes to fair catch a line drive rugby punt that was assuredly heading into the end zone on his own 5 yard line was a huge mistake in a field position game and set the key sequence in motion. Then Haack had the bad and costly punt and later, redshirt freshman Das Tautalatasi gave Utah its next short field with a 15 yard kick catch interference penalty. Those plays overshadowed to some degree what was otherwise a tremendous effort and proved that ASU's recent special teams improvement isn't a fluke. This is continuing to build into a team strength and with White, Haack, Hayes and Gonzalez all returning next year with more time to refine the teachings of coordinator Shawn Slocum, this could be an ASU strength next season. 

10. Depth in the secondary is a real issue for the Sun Devils right now and has been in the Graham era. When a team's self-styled goal is to win 15 games, it has to expect that it'll be able to overcome some key injuries without much drop off. This is especially true in the defensive backfield for a team like Graham's, which relies so heavily on those players due to its blitz-heavy approach. The Sun Devils have been fortunate Carrington and Brown have stayed healthy because they're one injury away at cornerback from a problem and we saw Utah exploit true-freshman Orr as a reserve at field safety Saturday with sophomore starter Armand Perry out with an ankle injury -- and Perry too is playing safety for the first time in his college career this season. Orr can't be expected to perform flawlessly. He was at cornerback just a month ago. But he wasn't there to help on the deep pass completed to Scott on Brown that some free safeties might have picked off or at least broken up -- former ASU safety Damarious Randall comes to mind -- and the very next play Orr gives up a touchdown when he's caught looking into the backfield on man coverage. ASU's got to get its depth to a place where there isn't a drop off here, and next season the Sun Devils will lose Carrington, Brown and senior Bandit safety Jordan Simone. Perry and Orr are going to be really good players and there are others on the team who could also be strong starters in the Pac-12, but in Year 4 it's reasonable to expect there to be more developed options to fall back on.

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