SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Jay Jay Wilson had a clear path to the end zone and a freshly-intercepted football tucked into his left arm as he crossed Utah’s five yard line.
Instead of immediately returning it for six, he paused.
Wilson tucked his right shoulder down, set his feet and delivered a punishing hit to Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley. Much like the rest of Arizona State’s (4-3, 3-1 Pac-12) defense during the Sun Devils’ 30-10 victory over Utah (4-3, 1-3), he wanted to make sure it hurt.
Wilson’s desire to capitalize his first career interception by pounding the very player he stole the ball from may have stemmed from an earlier conversation he had with defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, in which the first-year coach reprimanded Wilson for his first-half performance.
“I told (Jay Jay) he needed to get a pick for a touchdown, I was pissed off,” Bennett said of his first-game defensive starter in Wilson. “You know, he’s still learning.”
The pick six was the final blow for a defensive unit that was keyed in on seeking out and relentlessly punishing the Utes’ mistakes all Saturday afternoon.
J’Marcus Rhodes snatched a ball out of mid air after it was deflected off of a Utah receivers’ helmet during the first quarter, leading to the second of three field goals freshman placekicker Brandon Ruiz would make in the first quarter to give ASU a 9-0 lead.
Chase Lucas grabbed an interception on a woefully overthrown deep ball after ASU had led its longest scoring drive of the season to extend its lead to 16-0 just before the break.
Christian Sam made a tremendous read on an ill-fated screen pass after a rushing touchdown from Manny Wilkin had opened a 23-3 ASU lead midway through the third.
Sam, too, seemed to play with a similar ferocity as Wilson demonstrated on his touchdown.
“Christian Sam, he wanted to smack me on Thursday,” Bennett said. “I told him hey, I probably would have scored on that pick.”
The Arizona State defense had given up 30 points in 11 straight games heading into last weeks matchup against then No. 5 Washington.
It has now given up just 27 across its last 10 quarters.
The defensive turnaround has been stunning, but the first-year coach knew it would take time.
“What did I tell you?” Bennett asked the media following Saturday’s victory. “It’s a journey. I didn’t get up and say hey ‘we’re gonna be where we’ll be’ ever. I just said it’s a process.”
The process has proven to be extremely difficult at times for the Sun Devils. They allowed Texas Tech quarterback Nick Shimonek to throw for 543 yards, gave up over 300 yards to Stanford running back Bryce Love and lost three of their most impactful defensive playmakers in senior linebackers Koron Crump and Alani Latu and junior cornerback Joey Bryant.
Head Coach Todd Graham acknowledged the adversity the Sun Devils have faced thus far and gave a hint as to what has caused the defensive transformation.
“Obviously we’ve had some losses,” Head Coach Todd Graham said. “...but we got a lot of things corrected that we needed to be corrected. We had some personnel issues and we corrected (them). I think that helped and those guys are gaining confidence.”
ASU’s victory marked the second straight game in which the Sun Devils completely eliminated the opposing team’s playmakers. Utah tailback Zack Moss has 12 carries for just 49 yards, Huntley threw for 155 yards and four interceptions and wideout Darren Carrington managed just six receptions for 56 yards.
Perhaps Arizona State was tired of being the underdog, of being remembered as the worst secondary in the country for the last two seasons. Perhaps it was tired of being double-digit underdogs for five consecutive games — two of which were at home.
When asked about the doubt hanging around the program, senior running back Demario Richard noted that the fault in underestimating his team was in the hands of everyone that didn’t believe in them.
“That’s on them,” Richard said after the game. “We’re going to do what we got to do. At the end of the day, (we) still got to come play us.”
Richard, too, seemed to be driven by a certain anger when the ball was in his arm. The senior running back gained 93 yards 18 carries while adding a touchdown and breaking plenty of tackles both between hashes and down the sideline.
After limping into conference play at 1-2, the Sun Devils are crafting a new narrative for a season many may have believed was already lost — and perhaps in spite of those beliefs. After outlasting Oregon, upsetting Washington and dominating Utah, Arizona State’s shot at a Pac-12 South title remains, remarkably, is in its own hands.
The division-leading USC Trojans await ASU next week in Tempe with a chance to rip it away from them.