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ASU Football: Sun Devils rolled 34-13 by Utah in Shaun Aguano’s interim head coaching debut

Five days of preparation was not enough time

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

Interim head coach Shaun Aguano’s welcoming party at Sun Devil football was emphatically spoiled on Saturday, as veteran coach Kyle Whittingham and Utah (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) rolled into Tempe and dominated Arizona State (1-3, 0-1) by a score of 34-13.

In one of the most turbulent weeks in the recent history of the program, a dramatic coaching change overshadowed the usual main event of the week. The “parting of ways” with former head coach Herm Edwards, and the subsequent promotion of running backs coach Shaun Aguano to interim head coach on Sunday, came before Arizona State’s matchup with their toughest opponent yet.

Five days wasn’t enough to prepare for one of the best teams in the Pac-12. As Aguano put it after the game, it was a “whirlwind of a week,” one that many Sun Devils and their faithful would like to move on from.

“The only thing that I’ve asked is to just play hard and we’ll see what happens” Aguano said. “We’ll get there. I promise you we’ll get there.”

One of the lone bright spots on the year, the ASU ground game, was the Sun Devils’ downfall. Ironically, running backs are Aguano’s specialty. Arizona State’s six net rushing yards tonight were the fewest in a single game by any Sun Devil team.

While the ASU run game could never find a jumpstart, Utah took to the air early and attacked a depleted Sun Devil secondary. With defensive back regulars Ro Torrence, Ed Woods, Kejaun Markham and Keon Markham all on the sidelines with injury, Utah quarterback Cam Rising came out firing.

On the Utes second drive, following the first of many ASU three-and-out’s, Utah dialed up an end around flea flicker in which Rising found a wide open Dalton Kincaid in the end zone for the tight end’s third touchdown of the season.

Not letting up, Utah’s offense turned right back around off another Sun Devils three-and-out to take up 70 yards in six minutes. The Utes’ up-tempo attack was capped off by another Rising to Kincaid touchdown pass, putting Arizona State down 14 points in under 12 minutes.

“That up-tempo, it gets tough,” said Aguano. “You’re keeping defensive linemen on the field without substitution and asking them to make plays over and over again.”

With star running back Tavion Thomas on the sideline for the first half, the Utah diversion to passing was a headache for all levels of the Sun Devils’ defense. By the time the dust settled in the first quarter, the Utes had already amassed 103 yards through the air.

With the early deficit, and many expecting to see an uptick in offensive pace with Aguano, Arizona State did open-up the passing game under Aguano with 36 attempts, the team’s highest total in 2022. Unfortunately for Emory Jones, the Utah pass rush imposed its will on the offensive line and gave the junior quarterback little time to make plays. Jones was sacked five times.

“We came out trying to throw the ball a little bit more,” said Jones. “I kinda got a little antsy in the pocket at times but the offensive line’s gotta protect better, the running back’s gotta protect better.”

Despite pass protection issues, Jones was not shy about admitting his role in the offense’s slow night.

“I didn’t play my best ball today,” Jones said. “That’s something I have to lock in to make sure our guys have the best chance to win. We’re all in this together.”

It’s certainly hard to play your best ball on a night where you get sacked five times and hit two more. Utah’s pressure is statistically the most Jones has faced as a collegiate quarterback in a single game, with him being brought down just nine times in total in his last season at Florida in 2021.

By the time the first half came to an end, Arizona State trailed Utah in nearly all statistical facets of the game, most importantly on the scoreboard which read 24-6. And while the Sun Devils found a spark with a Timarcus Davis interception on Utah’s first drive of the half, their eventual turnover on downs would open the floodgates for Kyle Whittingham’s patented ground game.

Off the failed fourth down conversion, Utah took over on offense four minutes into the third quarter and would not relinquish possession until nearly another four minutes had gone by. Those four minutes might as well have been four years, as fourth year back Tavion Thomas made his presence known with five rushes for 40 yards off the jump. From there, Rising would lead the Utes inside the 10 where Micah Bernard finished off the drive with a seven yard rush to put Utah up 31-6. In total, Utah rushed for 86 yards in the third quarter alone.

While the Utes tacked on a field goal in the fourth and the Sun Devils found the endzone to extend their streak of games with a touchdown at home to 78, the late score would be for nought. The final score read a 34-13 victory for Utah, marking Arizona State’s third consecutive loss.

“That’s a pretty good football team and tonight they were better than we were,” said Aguano following the game.

Despite the defeat, the Sun Devils did not feel as if the week’s events affected their preparation for the game.