“Great players make big plays in big moments.”
When head coach Herm Edwards spoke about junior wide receiver N’Keal Harry’s play last week in a thrilling come from behind victory over USC, the idea that he would somehow top his performance the following week was frankly unfathomable.
Yet, that’s exactly what he did in a dominant ASU victory on Saturday when he reeled in nine catches for 161 yards and three touchdowns. While his play lacked the virality of his one-handed catch from last week, he was equally electric en route to an impressive 38-20 Sun Devil victory over the Utah Utes.
"I’ve worked countless hours with N’Keal, and for him to have moments like this, it’s very special for me because I know how hard he works,” said redshirt senior quarterback Manny Wilkins. “I know how much this sport and this game means to him. I know how much it means to him for his family, and having a guy like that to be able to throw the football too, it’s very special. I got a lot of respect for him.”
Harry was one of many Sun Devils with strong offensive performances Saturday, as Wilkins and sophomore running back Eno Benjamin both put up impressive numbers in the win. Wilkins looked calm, cool and collected for the entirety of the game, completing 19 of his 24 passes for 285 yards and three scores.
Wilkins was rarely pressured, with Utah failing to register a single sack, and he was effective using his feet, registering 24 yards on the ground.
Benjamin once again verified his status as one of the best running backs in the conference, gashing the stingy Utah defense to the tune of 27 carries for 175 yards and two touchdowns. He looked electric with the ball in his hands, time and time again making the first man miss and consistently requiring more than one Ute to bring him to the ground.
His otherworldly performance came to a fitting end late in the fourth quarter, as he busted open a long 44-yard touchdown run that essentially sealed the game.
“The design is very simple,” Edwards said. “Can three (Benjamin) touch the ball and can one (Harry) touch the ball. How many times do they get to touch it. That’s the design of any offense, to get your good players the ball.”
On the defensive side, ASU struggled initially, giving up 17 first half points. But the combination of sound halftime adjustments and an injury to Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley led to a much more subdued second half attack from the Utes.
The Sun Devils defense also managed to force turnovers when the team needed them most, picking off Huntley twice and his backup freshman Jason Shelley once. Freshman safety Aashari Crosswell pulled down his first career interception in the end zone and he broke up a would-be touchdown later in the game.
Crosswell was one of the many ASU defensive backs who took their game to another level Saturday, as the typically porous pass defense limited each quarterback they faced to under 100 yards through the air.
“It was just a great play by me, and it was a great play by the people rushing to give me my first pick,” Crosswell said. “When the ball was in the air, the sun was in my eye. I couldn’t see anything. I’ve dropped too many, so this first one, it’s special. Manny told me to enjoy this moment.”
Unlike any of the previous Sun Devil matchups, ASU excelled in the third quarter and was able to hold on to their slim four-point lead. The half began with interceptions from both teams, but only ASU was able to capitalize as they continued to chew clock while the Utes only managed three points.
It was a proud moment for the entire coaching staff, as the Sun Devils' third quarter struggles had been well-documented and much talked about around the facility. A clear emphasis was placed in practice this week on eliminating their third quarter complacency, and a successful showing this week justified the coaches constant harping for more production.
“The third quarter was important for us,” Edwards said. “We needed to play good in the third quarter. We just needed to do that.”
With their win over the previously division-leading Utes, ASU has vaulted themselves into the driver’s seat of the Pac-12 South. Wins in their final three games against UCLA, Oregon and Arizona guarantees a championship game berth for the Sun Devils.
It would be easy for ASU to begin looking ahead, to dream of what this season could become. Not Edwards though. He seemed unbothered by the idea, and when asked about the possibility of reaching the championship game, he maintained a stoicism that has come to define him in his short tenure with the university.
“We’re just trying to win one game at a time. I don’t even get involved in all that, I don’t even talk about that stuff,” Edwards said. “That’s just me. That’s how I function. I don’t get into down the road. I just deal with what’s in front of me. We’ll enjoy tonight, and tomorrow we’ll get to work on the Bruins.”