Hot take: Arizona State is not a bad football team.
It is, however, exactly where most thought it would be after a 49-26 loss to No. 15 Utah - .500.
With a few key players back from injury and a few still missing from the lineup, the Sun Devils jumped out to a 13-0 lead following a couple of forced and recovered fumbles. Senior kicker Zane Gonzalez knocked in a couple of field goals and junior running back Kalen Ballage rumbled in for a two-yard touchdown run. Everything seemed to be back to normal.
Unfortunately, “normal” for ASU also includes inconsistent play from the secondary. Sophomore Kareem Orr was beat by Utah’s Rae Singleton for a 64-yard touchdown, a play in which ASU head coach Todd Graham said Orr lined up in the wrong coverage.
“Our goal going into the game was just keep the ball in front of us,” Graham said. “We played Cover 4 most of the night, so that was very frustrating. We played very poorly in the back end.”
Orr wasn’t the only player victimized by Singleton and the rest of Utah’s offense. Four of Utah’s six offensive touchdowns were at least 20 yards. Utah quarterback Troy Williams had a day, completing 21-of-37 passes to go along with four touchdowns and 296 yards.
“I think we did a lot of things that were self-inflicted,” ASU redshirt junior defensive back Marcus Ball said. “They definitely had a good game plan, but like I said before, they have some great coaches. They had a great game plan and stuck to it. They did some things and schemes but down the stretch we had some self-inflicted wounds that cost us.”
Again, staying within the theme of a “normal” ASU performance, the Sun Devil defense showed poor tackling form. This most clearly came about on an 82-yard touchdown run from Utah’s Joe Williams on the Utes’ first offensive play of the second half. ASU junior linebacker DJ Calhoun, who Graham did had a clear shot at Williams, but he was hardly the only ASU defender who missed a tackle tonight.
Troy Williams was as evasive as can be, escaping what looked to be sure-fire sacks for the Sun Devil defense. Alas, they weren’t, and Williams often turned those opportunities into chunk plays for the Utes offense. Williams’ ability to extend plays strained the struggling ASU secondary, with Singleton capitalizing for three touchdown receptions on the night.
“We did a lot of good things,” Graham said. “I thought we had it under control at halftime. We pushed them all the way back to first and forty but we weren’t able to get them off the field.”
Graham’s attempt to pressure less, cover more and give up fewer explosive plays hasn’t exactly worked. ASU has given up more touchdowns of 50 or more yards than anyone in the country, and it’s come from a consistent combination of blown coverages and missed tackles.
“We’ve gone away from being a high-pressure team,” Graham said. “When you do that, you have more calls and more things like that, and we’re kind of going through a little bit of a transition.
“We have to get better. That’s the area that really hurts us because we’re really, really inconsistent and not playing really well as a unit (in the secondary).”
The defense wasn’t the only thing that struggled as the game progressed. ASU’s offense stalled several times due to negative or no-gain plays. Utah’s defense feasted up front, collecting 22 tackles for loss, 11 of which being sacks.
The Utes’ dominance on defense took away ASU’s running game, which has proven to be the central factor in the Sun Devils finding any sort of rhythm. Although Ballage had a handful of plays where he got loose, he still averaged just 3.1 yards per carry. His normal running mate, junior Demario Richard, only saw six touches for two yards.
“They did a really good job scheming us up and game planning for things that we do,” ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins said. “The team fought hard, we should have won that football game.”
ASU did have a 6-foot-4, 220-pound bright spot on offense in the form of freshman receiver N’Keal Harry. His 31-yard touchdown run from a busted play was eye-popping, drawing compliments from both Graham and Wilkins.
“That was special,” Wilkins said. “You don’t see that from many guys. Some guys might have thrown that ball away, some might have gotten tackled, but he made something happen and that’s what he came here to do. He’s really stepped up and matured and is letting people know that just because he’s a freshman doesn’t mean he can't go out there and be the best player on the field.”
But let’s not get too far away from the main point that ASU struggled when it could not afford to struggle. An optimist could say the Sun Devils are a young, inexperienced team in many facets across both sides of the ball, especially on defense. An cynic could claim ASU just isn’t that good, and it has only two more chances to earn bowl eligibility after a 5-1 start.
One chance is against the No. 4 Washington Huskies.
The last chance is the Territorial Cup.
“We’re not done,” Graham said.