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ASU Football: Questions over play-calling, discipline errors return in another defeat in Utah

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Holiday Bowl or bust

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Utah Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Rod Gilmore spoke for all of Sun Devil nation during the second half of the ESPN broadcast.

In short, Gilmore, along with the rest of Sun Devil Twitter, criticized Arizona State’s second-half play calling for being too conservative. After a pair of early touchdown passes and over 100 yards in the air, the Sun Devils were clearly committed to the run.

ASU took advantage of early mismatches on the outside with Utah loading up against the run, why feed the ball right into the teeth of the Ute defense?

In Herm Edwards’s weekly press conference on Monday, he re-emphasized the team’s commitment to its nationally-recognized running back room:

“The more you stick to [the running game], it will pay dividends, and so far this year, it has.”

Well, in the 35-21 loss to Utah on Saturday night, it did not. Was it this hubris that caused the second-half stagnation? A lack of execution? Regardless, the second-half Sun Devils could not have been more different than the first, resulting in the first scoreless half of ASU football of 2021.

On 15 rushing attempts after halftime, all ASU runners combined for 17 total rushing yards.

Utah took the ball to open the second half down 21-7, marched 75 yards down the field, and scored to make it a two possession game. The Sun Devils responded with a seven-yard, three and out series.

Utah would go on to score a touchdown on every drive in the second-half.

“You could feel the energy back in the stadium,” Herm Edwards said. “And then offensively, we couldn’t do anything to counter it. We couldn’t move the ball to score points and that’s a little frustrating on both sides because we had been pretty good in the second halves.”

Jayden Daniels does some of his best work when the offense is spaced out. Whether it is using the play-action to leak Curtis Hodges or others into the second level, or spreading out the receivers to cause confusion amongst defensive backs, Daniels has pro-level decision making, and the ability to extend plays. Why not take advantage of that?

Also, where did Ricky Pearsall go after the first few drives? Pearsall has been the “big-play” threat of recent, and he was nowhere to be found when a chunk-play was needed most.

So. Many. Questions.

Daniels (20-31, 237 yards, two touchdowns) impressed considering about half of his receiving corps recorded a drop or two. In terms of accuracy and execution, it may have been his best performance all year.

To say that ASU lost its identity in the loss to Utah would be too simplistic. The pass-first, then “run it down their throat” mentality has been the blueprint all season long. Utah just proved that it was beatable.

Discipline was an issue once again, with the Sun Devils giving Utah 115 free yards in penalties. False-start here, illegal formation there, with a couple holdings sprinkled in here and there.

In hindsight, last week’s win over Stanford offered a glimpse into what would be the demise of ASU on Saturday. The parallels are uncanny.

Two weeks in a row ASU dominated out of the gates, but were a step slow out of halftime. This week, Utah took advantage of the lulls and some penalty troubles and turned them into 28 unanswered points and a victory.

In the last two games, the Sun Devils trail 31-7 in second half scoring.

The defense is not guilt-free either, outside of another exceptional individual performance from Tyler Johnson, and a pair of first-half interceptions. Both were overshadowed by 28 points allowed after half.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (21-33, 247 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions) moved on from two picks, and proved to be a problem in both facets. Most notably, Rising and the Utah offense went 7-for-11 on third downs.

To put it simply, coach Antonio Pierce’s defense could not get off the field.

The gut-wrenching, tale-of-two-halves showing nullifies most of the Rose Bowl hype that has surrounded this team since the offseason. It will also overshadow a few notable points:

  1. Jayden Daniels reached the 5000 career passing yards milestone, keeping him on-pace to finish this season top-ten in ASU history in passing yards.
  2. Two weeks in a row, the leading Sun Devil receiver was tight end Curtis Hodges (four receptions, 74 yards, one touchdown.) Sun Devil fans have clamored for a playmaking tight end ever since Zach Miller left in 2007. Hodges might be that guy. Also look out for Oklahoma-transfer Jalin Conyers, who scored his first touchdown as a Sun Devil on Saturday. Both struggled with drops, but their size and red-zone presence cannot be ignored.

The season of destiny likely will not have the fairytale ending envisioned by some. With a 5-2 record, Allegiant Stadium now seems an eternity away.

There must be something in that Utah air.