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ASU Football: Revisiting pregame storylines from Utah following 34-13 loss

The mistakes were there to correct coming into the game, how were they handled?

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

By now, the strengths and weaknesses of the ASU (1-3, 0-1 Pac-12) football team are pretty well-known. Interim head coach Shaun Aguano had his work cut out for him when he took the job, but there is clearly lots of work to be done in all phases if ASU wants to pull off a miracle next week at USC.

Before Saturday’s 34-13 loss to Utah, House of Sparky produced its “Storylines to watch” piece chronicling some areas where Aguano could improve the team as interim head coach. Today, we are circling back to those points to see what adjustments ASU has to make.

How Aguano and OC Glenn Thomas managed pace on offense

Question/claim: Could subtle differences like these indicate a change in play style, perhaps with the passing game?

Question/claim: The first offensive drive will tell us a lot. Aguano and Thomas undoubtedly started from scratch molding their game script for this week.

If the first offensive drive told us anything, it was that Emory Jones and the offense were in store for a rough night. On its first possesion, ASU ran three plays: a batted down pass by Emory Jones and back-to-back sacks for a -18-yard drive to start the game.

Jones proceeded to have his worst game as a Sun Devil.

“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.”

The Sun Devil bread-and-butter is in the running game, where they had over 100 yards rushing in each of the first three games. They had 6 rushing yards after including Jones’s sacks from Saturday, the worst rushing total in Sun Devil history.

Jones did throw 36 times, four more than his previous-high of 32 from last week vs Eastern Michigan. What’s the common denominator between those two games?

ASU never led in either of those games.

The offense may be moving at a faster rate, but the production is clearly still lacking, as the Sun Devils did not reach the end zone until a garbage-time fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Jones to tight end Messiah Swinson.

Can one week’s worth of work from a new head coach alleviate some penalty issues?

Claim/question: “It is always important to remember how talent and ability impacts discipline and tolerance.”

The Sun Devils actually beat Utah in a few minor areas of the game with which ASU typically struggles: penalties and special teams.

Utah (6) only committed one more penalty than ASU (5), but the Utes’ 70 yards in penalties was significantly more than the Sun Devils’s 35 yards. For those who have watched ASU football consistently the past two years, this is a minor victory.

“When we got in at halftime and brought them all in, let’s just win the half no matter what the score is,” Aguano said. “And again, there’s no finger-pointing. I like the positiveness. We’re going to grow from it. I love these guys with all my heart and I told them at halftime, then I told them after the game, there will be no quit from me and there will be no quit from our staff.”

There were some ugly ones as well. Cornerback Timarcus Davis was flagged on a controversial late-hit call that extended a Utah drive in the first quarter. Elijah Badger also picked up his second post-play extracurricular penalty in as many weeks. There is still room to improve.

How will the defense bounce back from an abysmal performance?

Claim/question: The secondary has quietly impressed after receiving some preseason doubt, likely due to a lack of name-familiarity. In three games, they allowed 172.67 yards per-game through the air, which is pretty impressive on the surface level. But the reality is teams are dominating ASU at the line of scrimmage, and imposing their will on the ground.

Utah came into Saturday’s matchup with a great game plan. With ASU extremely thin at defensive back (both Markhams, Ed Woods and Ro Torrence did not play), Utah got creative with their play designs and attacked the secondary through the air on its first two scores.

After that, they dominated the line-of-scrimmage with the ground game, rushing for 205 yards between six rushers. Utah quarterback Cameron Rising also threw for 260 yards.

“(Utah is) a well-disciplined coached football team and their up-tempo against us, I think they learned a little bit from Eastern Michigan (last week) and what (Utah) did to us last year,” Aguano said. “We couldn’t get guys off the field in substitution, so we got to find a way to get stops.”

Freshman cornerback Isaiah Johnson received his first start at corner among the injuries. Johnson, the former highest-rated recruit in the program, impressed with 4 tackles, a tackle-for-loss, and a pass defended.

“So whatever anybody else sees on the exterior, from the interior, we’ve grown as a team, and this is going to be a process,” Aguano said. “I didn’t think that this would be four days and a miracles going to hit. It’s going to be a process.