SALT LAKE CITY — Many times, we all forget the most important strategy to winning in football is scoring more points than the other team.
The Arizona State Sun Devils' special teams had their best performance in four years under coach Todd Graham. ASU's defense piled on five sacks 13 tackles for loss and contained Utah's prolific running game for three quarters.
But the points weren't there.
After holding a one-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter, the Sun Devils (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12) gave it away and fell 34-18 at the No. 4 Utah Utes Saturday night.
The Sun Devils finished with just 257 total yards — only 15 rushing — as the offense remained stagnant all night.
ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici, who finished 20-for-41 with 242 yards and an interception, took the blame for the much of the offensive ineffectiveness.
"Credit to [Utah], they did a great job," Bercovici said. "They outplayed us. While we were offense, really, it's on me for taking too many sacks and we had many opportunities but just couldn't take advantage of them.
Amid the rainy and wet conditions Saturday night, the Sun Devils were short on tailbacks. Running back Demario Richard (knee) did not play a down despite participating in pregame warmups. Kalen Ballage assumed most of the tailback duties until leaving the game with apparent cramps at the beginning of the fourth quarter, leaving De'Chavon Hayes at the position for the remainder of the game.
D.J. Foster had just four touches for six toal yards and seemed limited after taking a big hit from Utah's defense late in the game.
"Obviously, it hurts [not having Richard] but I thought Kalen did a great job [with] protection and in the run game," Bercovici said. "Even 'Gump' did a great job when he needed to come in, but at the end of the day, we can't turn the ball over."
While ASU's offense stalled from the beginning, the Sun Devils got a huge boost from their special teams. After Utah (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) drew first blood with Harrison Handley's two-yard touchdown reception, ASU wide receiver Tim White immediately answered on the ensuing kickoff with a 100-yard return for a score, ASU's first kickoff touchdown return since Rashad Ross took one to the house at the Colorado Buffaloes in 2012.
After Utah stalled in the following possession, Hayes had a 48-yard punt return that could have went all the way for a touchdown had Utes punter Tom Hackett not made the saving tackle.
As Arizona State reached Utah's red zone three times, Zane Gonzalez was still able to contribute points by making all three of his field-goal attempts.
ASU scored on a bizarre safety when a Utah kick returner tried to fake the Sun Devils' coverage team by throwing the ball to the other Utes' returner, but a botched pass in the end zone ruled as a forward pass resulted in two points for the Sun Devils. Gonzalez capped off the Sun Devils' scoring for the night by converting a 44-yard field goal to put ASU up 18-14 heading into the fourth.
With ASU's offense continuing to fail to find an offensive rhythm, the Utes capitalized. Devontae Booker responded to Gonzalez's final field goal with a 25-yard go-ahead touchdown run. After another empty ASU drive, Utah kicker Andy Phillips extended the Utes' lead with a 43-yard field goal.
Even despite those two scoring plays, the Sun Devils were still looking at a one-possession deficit. But one play can doom a team for good.
On a read option, Bercovici botched the hand-off to Hayes, leading to the Sun Devils losing the ball and the game. It was a symbolic play to lose the game on as ASU was discombobulated on offense all night.
"The turning point in the game was that set of downs where we fielded the ball inside our five and had the short punt out of bounds that hurt us," Graham said. "Then they score on the third-down play [from Booker], then the turnover on the red zone. That was the difference in the game."
Utah piled on to its lead with one more field goal from Phillips from 35 yards, and then a meaningless 62-yard run from Booker with 1:11 left as the Utes were running out the clock.
Utah quarterback Travis Wilson barely seemed fazed from ASU's aggressive pass rush and finished the game throwing 26-for-36 with 297 passing yards and two touchdowns. Booker had 14 yards at the start of the fourth quarter, but Booker, with the help of Wilson's hot performance, closed the game with 118 total rushing yards and two touchdowns.
"Our game plan was to stop the run," Graham said. "We get tackles for loss on some base downs, and then we force third-and-longs and we get after the quarterback. Pretty much all went as planned. I thought we got after [Wilson] pretty hard."
In several ways, Saturday resembled the Sun Devils' opening-week 28-17 loss to Texas A&M back in September as the offense stalled while the defense kept Arizona State competitive. Graham insisted the loss to Utah was nothing like the Texas A&M game.
Graham was pleased with the offensive line's improvement and called special teams play "phenomenal" as the Sun Devils head into a bye week with the Oregon Ducks up next on Oct. 29.
"I'm really proud of our guys and couldn't be more proud of how they played," Graham said. "You look at some of the individual efforts, they were phenomenal. I really felt like we were going to win the game the whole time."