ASU football rewind: What we learned in Sun Devils’ win over Utah

Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin jumps into the end zone for a touchdown against Utah in the second half on Nov. 3 at Sun Devil Stadium.

Arizona State (5-4, 3-3 Pac-12) continued its quest for a Pac-12 South title with an impressive 38-20 win over No. 16 Utah Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium in front of a Homecoming crowd of 46,445.

It was a contest in which ASU jumped out to a 14-0 lead and took a 21-17 advantage into the locker room at halftime.

Unlike in some past games, the Sun Devils were able to put away an opponent and not have the game come down to a last possession. ASU led 21-20 heading into the final quarter and then outscored the Utes 17-0 in the final quarter.

A 44-yard touchdown run by sophomore Eno Benjamin with 4:12 left secured the victory.

The 18-point win is the eighth-largest margin of victory over a ranked team since ASU joined the Pac-10 in 1978 and the fifth-largest vs. a Pac-10/12 foe.

Let’s review:

Three takeaways

1. The win by the Sun Devils means ASU now controls its own destiny. Utah, USC and Arizona all sit at 4-3 in the Pac-12 South while ASU is at 3-3, but the Sun Devils have the head-to-head tiebreaker now over both USC and Utah and they have the final game of the season remaining against Arizona. The other two games left are UCLA (2-7, 2-4) and Oregon (6-3, 3-3). Utah’s toughest remaining game will be against Oregon while Arizona still has one against North leader Washington State (8-1, 5-1).

2. There is more versatility in the offense than the Sun Devils showed early. Some say the Sun Devils were a little too reliant on the run early, but as the season has progressed offensive coordinator Rob Likens has opened up the playbook and done a better job of incorporating more passing. One of the criticisms early was that N’Keal Harry wasn’t getting the ball enough. He has 21 receptions for 347 yards in the past three games.

3. The ASU defense has made great strides. Yes, defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales can be a perfectionist but his young unit has continued to improve each week, which is bound to happen when you’re starting four freshmen. Holding Utah to 325 yards was a noteworthy task. Merlin Robertson made a great play on his interception that probably wouldn’t have happened a month ago.

Offense

The Sun Devils chalked up 38 points for a second straight week and it is noteworthy given that Utah entered the game ranked first in the country in red-zone defense, third in rushing defense, seventh in total defense, tenth in passing efficiency defense and 14th in scoring defense. The Sun Devils amassed 536 total yards, second this season only to the 558 it managed against Oregon State. The usual standouts came up big as Benjamin rushed for 175 yards, pushing him over the 1,000-yard plateau and giving him six games of 100 or more yards. Harry had nine receptions for 161 yards and three scores, and another junior, Brandon Aiyuk, managed six catches for 101 yards, his most productive outing of the season. ASU averaged 7.2 yards per play, converted 7 of 14 third-down tries and won the time of possession 36:35 to 23:25. The offensive line didn’t give up a sack for the fifth game. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Grade: A.

Defense

The Sun Devils surrendered 325 yards, the fewest it has allowed since the season-opening win over Texas-San Antonio, and held the Utes to 100 yards under their season average. ASU also had three interceptions, equaling its total of the first eight games combined. The interceptions came courtesy of Aashari Crosswell, Kobe Williams and Robertson. Crosswell’s came at the goal line early in the first quarter with Utah driving,  and he returned it 47 yards. The Sun Devils scored off that turnover to take a 14-0 lead. Robertson recorded a team-high nine tackles. Jalen Harvey, slowed this week by a neck stinger, made seven tackles, as did freshman lineman Tyler Johnson. Jermayne Lole, Malik Lawal and Renell Wren all had sacks.

Grade: B.

Special teams

This was the only area in which ASU coaches were likely disappointed. Punter Michael Sleep-Dalton averaged 36.5 yards on his kicks but he only had two tries. Kicker Brandon Ruiz made a field goal from 21 yards that put the Sun Devils up 31-20, but he had a miss from 37 yards. He also handled kickoff duties and averaged 57.9 on seven tries, well under his average of 62.1. Utah’s Britain Covey had a punt return for 36 yards and a kickoff return of 33. USC had a long punt return for a touchdown a week earlier so it’s an area where the Sun Devils could still use some work.

Grade: C.

Personnel

The Sun Devils’ main injury from the previous game (against USC) was a neck/shoulder stinger sustained by Harvey. He only participated in non-contact drills last week but was able to play the duration of Saturday’s game. Junior WR Ryan Newsome (ankle/foot) was out for a second straight game. … Junior Dominique Harrison started at corner in place of Chase Lucas, and junior George Lea got the nod at defensive end ahead of Shannon Forman although both Lucas and Forman played quite a bit.

Up next

ASU (5-4, 3-3) plays its last home game of the season with a noon kickoff against UCLA (2-7, 2-4), which is coming off a 42-21 loss at Oregon. It will be Senior Day as well as the school’s annual Salute to Service Day.

UCLA has a 20-13-1 advantage in the series with ASU and has won 10 of 16 at ASU.  The Bruins were a 44-37 winner over the Sun Devils last season at the Rose Bowl.

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