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ASU Football: Takeaways from the loss to Utah

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The Sun Devils’ fast start didn’t translate to a win against Utah.

NCAA Football: Utah at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Three quarters of competitive play, does not a win make.

Arizona State hung in tough with the No. 15 Utah Utes on Thursday, climbing within 28-26 of the visitors with the fourth and final period to pull off the upset and end the three-game losing streak. Rather, the Sun Devils imploded offensively and reverted to their October form defensively, and dropped their fourth straight to crash down to 5-5.

Now that we’ve gone from looking at possible Pac-12 championship possibilities to wondering if ASU’s even going to make a bowl game, the uncertainty surrounding the program is reaching a fever pitch.

Our takeaways:

1. Trick plays are fun, until they’re no longer surprising:

Much of what’s been positive about this season has surrounded the innovation that Chip Lindsay has brought to the ASU offense. The record’s 5-5 regardless, but it can’t be lost that the Sun Devils have only been as competitive as they’ve been because of the creativity of Lindsay’s play-calling.

The Sparky continued to work to effect against Utah, and ASU landed punches on trick plays throughout the game, most-notable a 46-yard completion from N’Keal Harry to Frederick Gammage and the 31-yard botched trick play that Harry turned into a touchdown anyways.

But as the game wore on, it became more and more clear that Utah was starting to guess at ASU’s misdirections, and forced the Sun Devils into compromising situations and losses of yardage as a result. The element of surprise is wonderful until the biggest surprise becomes a normal offensive play from scrimmage. There’s only so far utilizing trick plays can take you, and while the emphasis on creativity is to be lauded and has been much of the reason ASU’s even at .500 today, maybe it’s time to scale it back a tad.

2. The passing game has gone too vertical

The formula for ASU this season has been a strong rushing attack complemented by a downfield passing attack that’s been hit-or-miss. That trend bled into Thursday night, as most of Manny Wilkins’ throws were more than 10 yards and relied on either dropping it in a bucket or throwing to the back-shoulder well enough to get completions.

With the amount of emphasis Lindsay has put on getting the ball to play-makers like Harry and Tim White in space through screen passes and rushing opportunities, it should be expected to see ASU work the middle of the field more to allow those long after-the-catch plays to manifest themselves. Relying on a downfield passing game leads to explosive plays, but also leads to stalled drives and turnovers, both of which sunk ASU Thursday.

3. These last two weeks will determine whether Todd Graham stays or goes

Look, I’ve written here that there’s no chance Graham gets himself on the hot seat with the putrid stretch of play his team’s put up lately. But ASU’s 5-5 now, still needing another win to get bowl-eligible, and the next two games are paramount for Graham. Next week in Seattle projects to be ugly, and if ASU isn’t able to pull a rabbit out a hat against the Huskies it’ll come down to a Territorial Cup showdown in Tucson to pull ASU back to .500 and bowl-eligible.

One doesn’t want to overstate the importance of a rivalry game, because despite however much hatred there is in the relationship the fact is that if you play every year, you’re not going to win every year. Graham learned that in Tucson in 2014. That was against a much better Arizona team than this year’s edition. Now, add in the emotional side of the Territorial Cup as well as how poor Arizona’s season been even in comparison to ASU’s, this game is one that Graham can’t lose.

A 5-1 start that ends at 5-7 with a loss to an Arizona team that is the worst of the Rich Rodriguez era would be a slide that’d be incredibly-difficult to find excusable on Graham’s part.