The term “A tale of two halves” is often thrown around loosely in sports. One team plays a good first half, and comes out flat in the second, and vice versa.
On Saturday night in Salt Lake City, the cliche was personified in the most profound of forms. Arizona State took a 14-point lead into the locker room at halftime, and may as well have not come back out.
Utah (4-2, 3-0 Pac-12) dominated the second half in every sense of the word, putting together five methodical, easy, and backbreaking touchdown drives while shutting out ASU (5-2, 2-1) en route to a 35-21 victory at Rice Eccles stadium.
The loss makes the Sun Devils’ route to a Pac-12 South title an unlikely one. The fact that it comes in this fashion? Hard to stomach. ASU committed 13 penalties, regressing in an area it had shown improvement in in recent weeks.
“It felt like Deja Vu really,” quarterback Jayden Daniels said. “It’s just very frustrating.”
For those looking for a reason for the infractions, the head coach couldn’t give one.
“I have no idea, I wish I could tell you,” Edwards said. “It reared its head again.”
Utah punished Arizona State in the second half’s opening drive, then did it again the next drive, and again, and one more time. That fourth touchdown drive that sealed the game took seven minutes off the clock, and nailed the coffin on the most disappointing loss in the Herm Edwards era.
The Utah defensive side of the ball also hit the cooler of secret stuff in the halftime locker room. They took a dynamic ASU offense, and made them look like a peewee group. The Sun Devils were held scoreless, and in their only red zone threat of the half, they held and sacked their way backwards. A 51-yard field goal try with the game tied at 21 missed badly, and Utah never looked back.
“Out-coached, out-played, just better execution by Utah,” defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce said when asked just what went wrong on defense.
It wasn’t all bad. Act one of the evening actually went quite well for ASU, beginning with the game’s opening drive.
Herm Edwards’ has been clear about how important it is to start fast on the road.
“You don’t necessarily have to score, but you gotta move the chains a few times on that first drive,” Edwards said last week.
In its opening drive Saturday night, his team checked those boxes and more. Jayden Daniels led a statement 75-yard march down the field, throwing for 65 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown strike to Jaylin Conyers to cap it.
In recent weeks, the often prophetic rise of the ASU pass catchers has become reality. This was exemplified early in the second quarter, when wideout LV Bunkley-Shelton contorted backwards to catch an errant pass from Daniels, spun on a dime to avoid a tackle, and was off to the races. The sophomore scampered 56 yards before being dropped inside the 5-yard line. On the next snap, Daniels kept the ball and bootlegged it out to the pylon for score.
As good as the Arizona State offense was in the first half, the defense may have been even better. The Utes scored seven points in the opening half, and gained just 90 yards on their last five drives going into the break.
The name of the game? Takeaways.
Two key interceptions made by linebacker Darien Butler and safety Kejuan Markham kept Utah off the board.
The impressive first half will be a footnote, obviously, but the positives are ones to build upon.
The ASU team that went to the locker room at halftime was not the same team that emerged from it. On its first two possessions of the second half, the Utah offense kicked it into high gear, and received little to no resistance from an Arizona State defense that has been lights out in the second half of late. The Sun Devil defense allowed more points in the second half Saturday than it did in its first six games combined.
As Arizona State’s ugly fate became apparent in the waning minutes of the game, a week of talk about a wide open conference and control of destiny seemed laughable. As it has a number of times in recent years, ASU football stared opportunity in the face, and wilted.