Arizona State is now alone atop the Pac-12 South standings. Somehow a little over a month ago after a shellacking at the hands of UCLA, that statement being made on Nov. 2 seemed like an impossibility. Yet, here the Sun Devils sit at 7-1 after beating what is a quality team in Utah, and they didn't even bring their best football to the table Saturday. Here are a few things to take away from the Utah win.
1. No...seriously...Demario Richard can flat out play
I said it last week too, but it rings even more true after the 14-carry, 116-yard effort he put up against Utah. Marion Grice and D.J. Foster were never the same back, but they were similar enough to where the Sun Devils were fairly limited to their options in the backfield. With the addition of Richard and Ballage, it's clear the Sun Devils have a wealth of riches. D.J. Foster couldn't find the edge or the right gap on several occasions and Richard was right there to find his way through the middle of the Utes defense. There are going to be games like Washington, like Utah, where the Sun Devils can't win in conventional fashion, Richard has proven to be the player Arizona State can count on to bowl over players.
D.J. Foster only had 10 rushes for 53 yards, only third on the team. Does that mean he isn't the premier back anymore? Absolutely not. What it does mean is that he certainly isn't the go-to back in certain situations. Richard just happens to be the player of record right now because he's taking advantage of his opportunities. Teams aren't really game planning for Richard at the moment which has led to some of his success, but they certainly will now given his recent production.
2. Arizona State special teams: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"
Never has Charles Dickens quote from one of his most classic novels, A Tale of Two Cities, rang more true than it did for the Sun Devils' special teams play against Utah. Zane Gonzalez once again stepped up in the kicking game, making four of five field goals including the game winner. The punting, however, was poor at times with Taylor Kelly and Matt Haack each shanking one and Haack averaging just 36.5 yards after a monster week against Washington last week in Seattle. Kyle Middlebrooks only returned one punt of eight off the foot of Tom Hackett, three others of which I deemed returnable.
Again though the punt and kickoff coverage teams for the most part did a spectacular job covering super return man Kaelin Clay who returned just three kicks for 71 yards.
3. Mike Bercovici can be used
Nobody was writing it off for the last play of the game, but that script did end up being too good to be true. With six seconds remaining, Bercovici trotted out onto the field to attempt what looked like a potential "Jael Mary part two" but it wasn't to be as the pass was under thrown to what looked like nobody in particular to send the game into overtime. What it did show was Todd Graham (really Mike Norvell's) willingness to use Bercovici in certain situations which we hadn't seen yet since Kelly's return against Washington.
While Kelly certainly wasn't at his best against Utah, completing 18 of 32 passes for 205 yards, a touchdown and an interception, what Kelly brings to the position in terms of dual threat ability cannot be duplicated by Bercovici and that's why Kelly will continue to start. The running game finally opened back up again against the Utes thanks to Kelly's ability to run the ball 14 times for 55 yards, something Bercovici simply cannot provide this team on a consistent basis. That last play did showcase a potential use for Bercovici in certain situations where extreme arm strength could be needed.
4. Antonio Longino has a home at WILL linebacker
Longino finished second on the team with 11 tackles against Utah and 51 tackles this season, but 24 of those 51 have come in the past three games when he has moved over to WILL linebacker. It's clear that Longino functions better in a more defined role like WILL rather than something more undefined and fluctuating like a Devilbacker. Head coach Todd Graham said he likes Longino lined up at WILL and he has thrived there.
5. This team wins the close ones
I want to be clear in that I'm not saying this team is "great," but one of the signs of a great, potentially championship winning team is the ability to win close games when it matters. Did luck play a factor against USC and Utah? Absolutely. But those teams also had to make the mistakes necessary for that to happen prior to those last fleeting moments which helped the Sun Devils win. There is still a lot of football to be played this season, but whether it's the Jael Mary or Gonzalez's kick in overtime, Arizona State is finding ways to win games in huge situations when it matters most and that says a lot about the potential of this team.