Utah can't hold on against ASU

Despite leading late, the Utes dropped another Pac-12 nailbiter, this time to ASU

The transition to the Pac-12 has been a tough and long process for Utah. In their third season in the "Conference of Champions", the Utes have discovered that toughness and grit can keep games close, but solid depth and top-level talent tend to make that extra play or two that ultimately determine wins and losses.

A made tackle here, instead of a miss and things might be different. Perhaps a made block instead of a whiff, or a catch instead of a drop would make all the difference in a game like we witnessed against Arizona State. Can't the same be said for the games against Arizona, UCLA and Oregon State?

These were games the Utes were in. These were games the Utes could have won, but in the end only moral victories were earned and those sorts of victories don't show up in the standings. Consequently the Utes find themselves with a 1-5 record in the Pac-12 with three games to go.

Saturday had familiar storylines we've seen over the past few weeks; porous offensive line play, lack of offensive identity or continuity, interceptions, low turnover production, strong defense and solid play in the secondary and in the end, a loss.

Even with a 12 point lead going into the fourth, you could see that this game could not be won without one more score for the Utes.

Utah's offense had a few bursts of productivity that lead to 19 unanswered points against the Sun Devils, but when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, the offense couldn't move the ball and secure the upset win they desperately needed.

The offensive line struggled again against a talented and speedy Pac-12 defense, which registered two sacks on Wilson on the Ute's first offensive series. Utah's pass protection was suspect most of the day and forced the Utes to become a one-dimensional team.

Travis Wilson was manhandled, pressured, hit, hurried, hassled and stymied by the ASU defense which held him to just 6 completions for a season low 121 yards. The majority of Utah's passing plays had no shot for success. The ASU defensive rush busted through a confused, slow and ineffective Utah offensive line. Considering that Wilson was running for his life, it's amazing that Utah was not only in this game, but leading for much of it.

When Utah's offense was successful, it can be attributed to moments of decent line play that allowed Wilson a few precious seconds to make one of his six passing completions. How bad did it get? Watch the Ute's last six possessions of the game and you'll see a line that was completely dominated an ASU defense fighting for a comeback victory.

Some will put this loss on Travis Wilson. His numbers weren't impressive for a third consecutive week, but if you watch the game on tape, especially on their scoring drives, you'll see how Wilson's athleticism on the ground saved the day by turning a sure sack into a gain or even a first down.

Has Wilson gotten gun shy with the pass? Of course he has and why wouldn't he? Without fail, there's a defender in his face on nearly every play. The Utes only had a handful of plays where Wilson had adequate time to complete a pass.

How can an offense succeed when it is forced to become one-dimensional? We witnessed the result in the fourth quarter on Saturday.

ASU loaded up the box with 7 or 8 defenders, pinned their ears back and came after Wilson, and the run because they knew that a completed pass was unlikely.

The line was slightly better against ASU than the complete implosion shown at SC two weeks ago, but except for a few big plays, they were beaten across the board. Poutasi, struggled early and often with ASU's Gannon Conway who beat the preseason All-American with inside and outside technique on multiple occasions. Tofaeono was blown up on several plays, including Wilson's first inception while center Vyncent Jones got pancaked on a few plays as well.

The biggest question for this line is a simple one. Can the Ute's O line, which resembles the size, shape and physicality to Stanford's behemoth squad, get quick and agile enough to effectively protect the quarterback in a zone-blocking scheme?

The answer seems to get more obvious every week.

As for the receivers, they had a poor game as well, outside of Dres Anderson. On the few occasions that Wilson did have time to complete a pass, no one was open. Separation has been a big problem for the Utes over the past few weeks and with the exception of two plays to Dres, the receivers were blanketed by the ASU secondary.

It's becoming more and more apparent with each successive game that injuries to Kenneth Scott, Jake Murphy and Westlee Tonga have devastated this passing game. Defenses are keying on Dres Anderson, single covering the rest and blitzing like crazy knowing that the Utes have few options and little time to complete a pass.

The committee of running backs proved to be average as neither James Poole nor Kelvin York produced a ton of yards on the ground. With no passing game, Wilson found himself as a consistent rushing option with 17 rushing attempts for 62 yards. It's hard to criticize the running backs considering the line play, but Kelvin York's personal foul in the second quarter was costly and killed a drive in ASU territory that may have produced a field goal, the difference needed to pull off a win.

As for the Utah defense, each player should all get a game ball. ASU averages 46 points per game, but was held to just 20 on Saturday. With the exception of the first drive, the Utes kept Arizona State bottled up for three and a half quarters.

This was the best performance by the linebackers this season. Jason Whittingham lead the way with 14 tackles which Norris and Hale made major contributions on the pass rush, pass defense and stopping the run.

The defensive line was stout as well, with Tenny Palepio and LT Tuipulotu controlling the middle and stuffing the inside run attempts of ASU Marion Grice.

Justin Thomas continues to impress as he got his second start on Saturday. It's clear that he's going to be a special player for the Utes over the next three years. Utah's defense finished the game with six sacks and the secondary should be credited with half of them as they took away Taylor Kelly's ability to find open receivers.

You can't say enough about the play of Keith McGill, who has played the role of shutdown corner for most of the season. He will get a serious look from the next level with his size and speed.

The defense will need to play tough again if the Utes are to have any chance against their next opponent as the Utes travel to Eugene to play an Oregon team who got physically assaulted by those thugs at Stanford. With their National Championship hopes dashed by the Cardinal, they will be looking to take it out on someone and unfortunately for us, that somebody will be the Utes.

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