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ASU vs. Utah: Miscues, miscommunication cost Sun Devils in Senior Night loss to Utes

The Sun Devils dropped their home finale to the Utah Utes, 49-26, on Thursday.

Utah v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“It’s frustrating.”

Such was the tone of Arizona State head coach Todd Graham after his Sun Devils fell 49-26 to the No. 13 Utah Utes on Thursday night in Tempe.

The Utes spoiled what began as a joyous Senior Night at Sun Devil Stadium, dropping the Sun Devils (5-5, 2-5 in Pac-12 play) for their fourth straight loss in front of a crowd of 48,220.

“I am just really disappointed, especially for our seniors,” Graham said. “It was their last game here and we just self-destructed, so it was really frustrating.”

Things appeared to go in the Sun Devils’ favor early on.

On the first play of the game, a botched snap by Utah led to a fumble recovery by ASU defensive lineman George Lea, setting the Sun Devils up on the Utah 24-yard line just four seconds into the contest. ASU squandered its scoring chance six plays later when Manny Wilkins flung an interception to Utah defensive back Marcus Williams in the end zone.

A remorseful Wilkins (19 of 31, 309 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) admitted his error was costly.

“That’s a poor job on my part,” he said. “I have to live and learn and grow from it.”

“We would have went into half-time with a two point lead if we got a field goal out of that,” Graham said. “It cost us points.”

The ASU defense managed to force another turnover, when Troy Williams’ speed-option pitch to Joe Williams’ hit the turf, before senior Laiu Moeakiola wrangled it in.

This time ASU capitalized, driving down the field, before Zane Gonzalez netted the first of his two field goals, pushing the Sun Devils ahead 3-0. On its next possession, the ASU offense drove 67 yards in five plays before Kalen Ballage (15 carries, 46 yards, one touchdown; seven catches, 118 yards) scored on a two-yard run out of the Sparky formation, extending the lead to 10-0.

The series was highlighted by a 46-yard pass by receiver N’Keal Harry (seven catches, 108 yards; one carry, 31 yards, one touchdown; 1 of 1, 46 yards) to Fred Gammage, one of the several successful gadget plays dialed up by ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.

“I think Chip is doing a great job,” Graham said of the first-year coordinator.

Lindsey’s play-calling fueled the Sun Devils’ offense early. Lindsey called a slip-screen to Ballage while facing third-and-11 at the ASU 13 which resulted in a 71-yard gain. The drive ended with Gonzalez’s 36-yard field goal, his second of the game, giving ASU a 13-0 lead going into the second quarter.

The Utes drew ahead following a 64-yard catch by Raelon Singleton and a 27-yard catch by Siaosi Wilson, taking a 14-13 lead with 10:13 left in the first half. The scores exemplified the big plays which victimized the Sun Devils throughout the evening, and have the entire year.

“I felt like we did a good job today of making them one dimensional as far as making them throw the ball more than they usually do,” safety Marcus Ball said. “I think we did a lot of things that were self-inflicted.”

The ASU defense surrendered 296 passing yards Thursday, including five pass plays which went for 20 yards or more. Graham said his team played in deep quarters coverage throughout the evening, but was confused why his secondary allowed so many explosive plays.

“They couldn’t run the ball a lick and then we allow a 70-yard touchdown,” he said afterwards. “The big plays—the explosive—were the difference.”

Meanwhile, the Sun Devils’ offense forced the issue. On a nearly-snuffed double-pass, Harry corralled the ball before weaving through the Utah defense, reaching the end zone on a 31-yard run to reclaim the Sun Devils’ advantage.

“What a warrior he is,” Graham said of Harry, a true freshman. “He’s gonna be a great one.”

Just as the Sun Devils appeared to recapture the momentum, a 17-yard catch by Singleton the Utes ahead by one point going into the half.

Following the break, however, the evening turned sour for ASU.

The Utes’ first play of the third quarter ended with Joe Williams scoring on an 82-yard run, widening the margin to eight early in the third.

The Sun Devils rallied following linebacker DJ Calhoun’s fourth-down stop of Williams on the Utes next possession, and a 21-yard reception by Harry to convert a third-and-19 helped ASU draw within two after a 12-yard catch by senior Tim White.

Down 28-26 entering the fourth, the Sun Devils weren’t completely out of it.

Singleton’s third touchdown of the evening delivered the haymaker punch which stunned the Sun Devils, making them unable respond. Utah’s six fourth-quarter sacks appeared to drop ASU to the mat, rendering the Sun Devil offense helpless.

Graham said his team’s inability to protect the quarterback was unacceptable.

“We got sacked 11 times, which is ridiculous,” he said. “Our whole deal was to have no negatives and to take care of the football, but we ended up with 11 sacks and 22 TFLs. It is hard to be successful when you’re doing that.”

Hunter Dimmick, who tallied two of his five sacks in the final frame, dropped Wilkins on the same series he threw a game-cinching pick-six to Chase Hansen which gave Utah a 42-26 lead with just under six minutes left. A 40-yard run by Williams with 3:09 remaining ended all hope, pushing the score to its limit at 49-26.

“You’ve just gotta give them credit,” Graham said afterwards. “That was the 15th ranked team in the country and we could have beat them. But woulda, coulda, shoulda doesn't count.”

There were bright spots for ASU: Ballage and Harry were offensive forces. During the early stages of the game, the Sun Devils’ defensive front seemed in control.

Still, the same problems which have hurt ASU this season—poor tackling and miscommunication within the secondary—proved culprit.

Now, Graham looks forward to what’s still at stake with the season drawing to a close.

“We have two games left,” Graham said. “We have to get this team bowl-eligible, which we have a great opportunity to do next week. I am proud of these seniors and I am proud of what they have done for me and this school.”

The Sun Devils will look to earn bowl-eligibility next week when they travel to Seattle to take on the No. 4 Washington Huskies.