Deja Vu: Dominant defense leads ASU football to road win over Utah

The Sun Devils snap a two-game Pac-12 road game losing streak

SALT LAKE CITY – ASU football’s defense proved last week’s performance against then-No. 5 Washington may have been no fluke, by defeating the Utah Utes (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12) 30 to 10 in front of 45,863 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday afternoon. 

The Sun Devils (4-3, 3-1 Pac-12) intercepted Utah sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley four times and ASU ended a two-game losing streak against the Utes. The win also gave ASU its first win over a Pac-12 team on the road since Oct. 3, 2015 against UCLA. 

“Obviously very, very proud of our defense,” head coach Todd Graham said. “We knew we had good personnel (on defense). We’ve have had some losses that have hurt us, but I think it is just working and continuing to work. We are just better and we have better players in the backend. Those guys are gaining confidence and we are adapting.” 

The defense has only allowed two touchdowns in the last nine quarters and both came in the fourth quarter. At least for now, it appears the Sun Devils have put its early season struggles on defense and away from home behind them. 

“We just said early in the year to keep plugging, keep plugging and something’s going to break,” redshirt junior linebacker Christian Sam said. “And now the dam’s broke.”

ASU senior defensive back J’Marcus Rhodes intercepted Utah sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley for his first career pick on a deflected pass on Utah’s first drive, setting the tone for what was to come. 

Sam and redshirt freshman cornerback Chase Lucas also registered interceptions. 

“There were no surprises out there,” Sam said. “We saw everything we expected from practice. We just had to execute.” 

But junior tight end Jay Jay Wilson, who was making his first career start on defense, sealed the game with a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown. 

Wilson began the season as the Sun Devils starting tight end. But when senior linebacker Koron Crump suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3 at Texas Tech, Wilson was asked to fill in. 

“A guy that is unselfish,” Graham said about Wilson. “I went and talked with him and said, ‘long term for our defense, we need you to do this,’ and I am glad he did. It just speaks volumes about the character of our guys. You’ve got guys that are willing to do, maybe not what is best for them but what is best for the team.” 

On offense, ASU senior running back Demario Richard carried the ball 18 times for 93 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per carry. Fellow senior running back Kalen Ballage touched the ball 14 times for 75 yards and also averaged 5.4 yards per carry.

“It is not all about me though,” Richard said. “The offensive line has gelled together nicely. Without that push up front we cannot run the ball.” 

The Sun Devils out-gained the Utes 205 yards to 110 yards on the ground and 345 to 265 overall. As a result, the Sun Devils possessed the ball more than 12 minutes longer and ran 15 more plays than Utah. 

“It is all about snaps,” Graham said. “Their punter kept flipping the field – that guy is unbelievable. So, we’re getting it inside our 10-yard line but we’re getting it out of there all the time. That was big in this game.” 

The defense has struggled all season on third down, but the Sun Devils were able to get off the field. ASU was 8-of-16 on third down, compared to 3-of-10 for Utah.

“That is why stats don’t matter early in the year,” Graham said. “What matters is who you play. I mean, we’ve played a really good schedule, we’ve played some football teams – I think it has helped us get better.” 

After setting for three field goals in the first half, ASU led 9-0 with 5:09 left. A 9-play, 94-yard drive and a Richard 1-yard rushing touchdown extended the lead to 16-0 and set the tone for the second half. 

Redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins was intercepted to start the third quarter, but Wilkins said the team was not fazed. 

“When things didn’t go our way, staying poised in those situations, don’t point fingers, don’t blame anybody," Wilkins said. "I think that has been the biggest turning point for this team.” 

ASU entered Pac-12 play 1-2. Now, Graham and company have a chance to move into first place in the Pac-12 South with a win against USC next week in Tempe. 

“We’ve gotten more physical every week,” Graham said. “We’re playing our best football right now. But it’s just another week. Now you have to get ready to go to work and get ready for USC.”

ASU will square off with the USC Trojans at Sun Devil Stadium next Saturday. Kickoff is set for 7:45 p.m MST. 


Reach the reporter at jpjacqu1@asu.edu or follow @joejacquezaz on Twitter.

Like State Press Sports on Facebook and follow @statepresssport on Twitter.


Get the best of State Press delivered straight to your inbox.