Arizona State Report Card: Sun Devils offense struggles mightily in Utah loss
The Arizona State Sun Devils were dealt their third straight loss, with two of those decided by multiple touchdowns, this time losing to No. 13 Utah 34-13 Saturday night in the Pac-12 opener for both schools.
Defending conference champion Utah (3-1, 1-0) looked the part of a contender, overpowering the Sun Devils on both sides of the ball.
After the contest interim coach Shaun Aguano, who took over from Herm Edwards a week ago, stressed patience.
"Our guys are getting better. I really think that you guys don't see it, but I see it in the locker room. There's no pointing the fingers. There was positiveness. There was a fight to the end, and that's all I asked them to do. 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. I didn't think that this would be four days and a miracles going to hit. It’s going to be a process. I got the kids' attention that they're going to play and we can get better and better," he said.
The Sun Devils managed 267 yards but that is deceiving because the bulk of that came late in the second half when Utah had a lot of backups in the game. ASU had just six yards rushing on 20 tries with Xazavian Valladay's streak of three games of 100 yards or more coming to an end as he managed 30 on eight tries. The Sun Devils also saw a streak of 21 straight games rushing for more than 100 yards come to an end. QB Emory Jones went 21-for-36 for 261 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, with the scoring pass of 11 yards going to tight end Messiah Swinson with 2:06 left in the game. A big part of that equation was the trouble the offensive line had in keeping Utah defenders out of the backfield as the Utes had five sacks for a total loss of 45 yards. At times Jones hung on to the ball too long. His mechanics also seemed to be off at times, perhaps because of the pressure coming up the middle at him and not having the time to set his feet. Elijhah Badger continues to emerge as ASU's top receiver, adding five catches for 76 yards to his team-leading total. ASU was just 3-for-11 on third down tries and 1-for-2 on fourth down. It was 2-for-3 in the red zone with one touchdown and one field goal. Time of possession favored Utah 35:33 to 24:27. ASU was called for six penalties for 70 yards in the game with five of the penalties called on the offense.
The Sun Devils made modest improvement from last week. But then again it could not have gotten worse. Many of the statistics were similar as last week's numbers against Eastern Michigan but we'll deem this performance better because it came against a foe of a much higher caliber. Utah racked up 465 yards on 74 plays (6.3 ypp), with 260 yards through the air and 205 on the ground. Another streak of note ended as ASU had gone 18 straight games without giving up a play of more than 50 yards, the second-longest streak in the FBS in the last decade. A place ASU fared better was on third down conversions, actually getting some stops as Utah converted 5-of-15 after Eastern Michigan succeeded on 11 of 15 last week. Safety Khoury Bethley had a team-high 14 tackles and forced a fumble while Nesta Jade Silvera had 12 tackles, and a hurry. Kyle Soelle, who came in as the Pac-12's leading tackler, had 12 for his third straight game in double digits. Timarcus Davis had an interception, the lone takeaway of the night for ASU but the Sun Devils did not turn it into points. One place ASU continues to struggle is getting pressure on the passer. The Sun Devils had no sacks and have only two through four games.
This is one place the Sun Devils actually turned in an admirable performance. Carter Brown went 2-for-2 on field goals with kicks of 36 and 47 yards with the 47-yarder on the final play of the first half a career best for the true freshman. Punter Eddie Czaplicki averaged 46.4 yards on five tries with a long of 51 yards. He didn't get any downed inside the 20 but he was backed up near his own goal line on most tries. Czaplicki also had touchbacks on all three of his kickoffs. The return unit managed its best game in quite some time as Daniyel Ngata had three kickoff returns for 108 yards with a long of 58 while true freshman Javen Jacobs had one return for 47 yards. It marked the first time ASU had two kick returns of at least 40 yards in the same game since Tim White had two in the opening quarter and three total in the 2015 Cactus Bowl against West Virginia. There were no punt returns. D.J. Taylor, who has been ASU's primary return man, was injured making a fair catch on punt early on and did not return. Since ASU's three kickoffs went for touchbacks Utah had just one return and it was a punt return that went for 16 yards.
This is hard to peg because of the turmoil the team went through in the coaching change. Aguano kept a positive energy and vibe all week but that can only go so far when the gap in talent between the teams is so wide. The Sun Devils were also beset by some key injuries and Utah is strongest where the Sun Devils were the most vulnerable, most notably the line of scrimmage. The play-calling lacks creativity but with ASU being in long yardage situations so often, that can also limit the options. The challenge moving forward will be keeping players' spirits in check with a couple of daunting foes next up on the schedule.
Most notable was red-shirt freshman Isaiah Johnson making his first career start in place of injured Ro Torrence. Johnson was a four-star prospect out of high school who has seen little playing time but was pressed into duty with Torrence out as well as twins Kejuan and Keon Markham and managed four tackles and a pass break-up, his most notable play being a stop for a loss on a key third-down play deep in the red zone that resulted in the Utes settling for a field goal after driving all the way down to the ASU 4. The other key absence was that of defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott was injured an ankle/knee on the first drive of the last game did not return. Other players out with injuries included DL Gharin Stansbury (hamstring), DB Ed Woods (ankle) and WR Zeke Freeman. Those were in addition to the three players out for the season - DE Michael Matus, TE Jacob Newell and OL Joey Ramos.
The Sun Devils play their second-ranked team in as many weeks when they travel to Los Angeles to face No. 7 USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. USC (4-0, 2-0) is coming off a 17-14 win over Oregon State.
USC leads the series 24-14 which includes a 28-27 win in 2020, the last time the teams played in Los Angeles. The Sun Devils won last season's meeting in Tempe, 31-16.