The tale of two half's? More like the tale of five minutes. Midway through the third quarter the Utes were leading the game 14-13 with possession and a chance to extend their lead. But at the 4:52 mark things very quickly unraveled and over the next five minutes the game was lost. After giving up a field goal that drew ASU within one point, Utah's next three possessions would end fumble, interception, fumble and before Utah could blink the game was over.
The Utes played well enough in the first half to be in a position to win the game despite two first-half interceptions from quarterback Jon Hays. The defense schemed the Sun Devils very well, limiting their run game and containing their bubble-screens forcing quarterback Brock Osweiler to find receivers down field. Utah's pass rush was also strong from both the linebackers and defensive line. Osweiler was pressured and hurried throughout the first half and at halftime ASU had only scored 10 points.
The second half started off a lot like the first. The defense continued to stifle the Arizona State runners and they kept the score close, giving the Utah offense plenty of chances to take control of the game. But much like what happened last week against Washington, the offense turned the ball over multiple times in rapid succession forcing the defense to stay on the field for extended periods that they just couldn't overcome. The final five minutes of the third quarter were the difference in the ball game, a game Utah had every right to win up to that point.
Utah's offense is struggling, no doubt about it. They're not struggling to move the ball, just struggling to hold on to it. For the second straight week the Utes had five turnovers in a game that they seemed to have the ability to win. For the second straight week the Utes trailed 10-7 at halftime before multiple second half turnovers killed any chance they had at a win. And for the second straight week the Utes were blown out on their home field. Any and all hopes of finishing at the top of the Pac-12 South Division died Saturday, and now it looks like the Utes have a tough battle ahead of them if they want to become bowl eligible and play in December.
Quarterback Jon Hays played well in the first half. He threw two interceptions, one that was absolutely heartbreaking in the endzone at the end of the half, but at halftime he had the team down just three points and in a position to continue to fight in the second.
The second half started with a bang, too. On the Utes first possession Hays found Devonte Christopher down the sideline for 73 yards to the Arizona State 2 yard line setting the Utes up for the go-ahead score, but a holding penalty, one of a large number of penalties against the Utes on the day, brought the play all the way back and the Utes had to start over. Hays didn't get rattled though. He drove the team down the field while Utah coaches emptied the playbook with reverses, fake punts, and even a flea-flicker that set up the Utes in Sun Devil territory as the Utes eventually took a 14-10 lead.
That, sadly, was the end of the day for the Utes.
Hays ended the game 18 of 30 for 199 yards and 1 touchdown. His three interceptions, though, took points off the board for the Utes in a game where every one they could get was going to be crucial. He managed the game well until midway through the third quarter when things quickly fell apart; after that, there didn't seem to be anything anybody could do to stop the bleeding. His second half interception came when the game was essentially already lost, but his two first half INTs, mainly the throw to Rogers just before halftime, is inexcusable. On 3rd and 10 from the ASU 16 yard line Hays needs to know where they are on the field and make the best possible scoring decision. On that play he forced a throw into coverage rather than settling for an easy field goal.
Penalties have been a big problem for the Utes this season and in this game they were once again a major factor on both sides of the ball. Drive-killing penalties on offense, drive-extending penalties on defense, and personal fouls that are so uncommon from a Kyle Whittingham-coached team seemed to happen all game long. As a team the Utes finished with 7 penalties for 71 yards, one of which extended a drive that later ended in Arizona State's first touchdown.
John White ran surprisingly well against a very good Arizona State defensive front seven. He scored the game's first touchdown on Utah's opening drive running 30-yards off the right side of the line. He was able to find open space when it was given to him and he finished the day with 85 yards and a score. But his fumble late in the third quarter, the first of three consecutive turnovers, was the turning point in the game. It's hard to fault a kid when a mistake comes as a result of effort, but White's fumble was the nail in the coffin for the Utes, a team that could ill-afford to turn the ball over once against the Devils, let alone five.
Outside of a few penalties committed, the offensive line played much better than it did last week. The return of Tony Bergstrom on the right side shifted everybody back to their normal positions and seemed to add a level of consistency to the line that we haven't seen for a few weeks. Penalties, though, continue to be an issue with this group, and John Cullen seems to be working through some demons because he isn't the same player he was last year and has been a flag-magnet in each of the first five games.
There were a few other positives too, things that the team can build on. The defense allowed just74 yards rushing and 1.9 yards per carry to a team that averaged 140 yards on the ground per game entering the contest. They contained the ASU screen game all afternoon and held running back Cameron Marshall to just 47 yards on the day. Utah's running game performed better than expected, too, and despite Hays' three interceptions he seemed to be comfortable leading the team. He has potential as a leader, he just needs to cut out the interceptions. With Wynn's long-term future still in question Hays seems to have the skills to be a winning quarterback if he's needed for an extended period.
So where do the Utes go from here? After two consecutive five-turnover affairs it's hard to see things getting much worse for this team. Back-to-back road games at Pittsburgh and Cal are going to test these guys though. Two losses and a 2-5 start and the Utes will struggle to become bowl eligible, but two wins could dramatically change the rest of the year. Neither game will be easy. Both Pitt and Cal have shown the ability to compete against good teams and both get the Utes at home. It goes without saying, but if Utah wants any chance to win either or both of these games the turnover problem absolutely must be fixed. The Utes must also clean up the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot penalties that continue to plague them. Discipline on both sides of the ball needs to become a focus before the team can get better.
Game Wrap-Up - Arizona State at Utah
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