Arizona State intercepted three passes in its first eight games.
After their ninth, the Sun Devils have six, a veritable takeaway fest for a team that has improved greatly on defense over recent seasons while lagging behind in the kind of turnover production that defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales came to expect when he was at San Diego State.
“Big-time players make big-time plays when you need them to,” Gonzales said Saturday after a 38-20 win over No. 16 Utah. “They’re starting to understand their role and how to do things.”
The first interception was a needed dose of good fortune for freshman safety Aashari Crosswell, who has dropped some passes by opposing quarterbacks and been on the wrong side of some key plays during his learning curve.
This time, on Utah’s fourth offensive play, quarterback Tyler Huntley avoided a sack and chucked a ball deep that wide receiver Jaylen Dixon should have caught for a game-tying touchdown. The ball bounced off Dixon instead to Crosswell, who not only held on but returned it 47 yards to set up a scoring drive that put ASU ahead 14-0.
It was a 14-point swing that didn’t take out the Utes, who would score the next 17 points, but announced that ASU meant business on Homecoming.
“When the ball in the air, the sun was in my eyes,” Crosswell said. “It was just a great play by me and the people rushing that gave me my first pick. I’ve dropped too many so this first one, (quarterback) Manny (Wilkins) told me to enjoy this moment so I’m enjoying it right now.”
Gonzales said Crosswell did good and bad things on the play and chalked it ending up as an interception to Saturday being the Sun Devils’ day.
“It should have been a sack,” Gonzales said. “I’m getting fired up on the sideline because we should have hit Huntley in the back of the head and caused a fumble and he ducks underneath us and we have two different guys miss him. He’s able to roll out. Aashari covered the first receiver and the second one, then (Dixon) turns and runs to the end zone, and the ball is up in the air forever. Those are 50-50 balls.
“My thought is here’s Michigan State, they’re going to catch it or here comes the flag for pass interference. Well, the young man made a great play, and he had a pretty good return. That was a huge play. It’s growing progress.”
The other ASU interceptions were by freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson on Utah’s first possession of the second half with the Sun Devils leading 21-17 and by cornerback Kobe Williams off backup quarterback Jason Shelley on the Utes’ final drive.
Like Crosswell, it was the first interception of the season for both, and in Robertson’s case, also a sign of his growth after playing what Gonzales described as a terrible first half.
“He probably wouldn’t have been in the right spot” earlier in the season or even the game, Gonzales said. “We were trying outnumber them in the box (to stop the run). On the touchdown (putting Utah up 17-14), we should have been right underneath that. He didn’t know the down and distance. So the next time, he waits, he’s patient, he took coaching.
“After the interception, I walked over to him and he goes, ‘Coach I told you I’ve got you.’ I said, ‘Good, I need you to be better this half.’ “
Utah came in averaging 41 points over its previous four games and managed just half of that including only three points in the second half. ASU outgained the Utes 536-325 although Utah was without Huntley for the final 25 minutes after he suffered a broken collarbone during a tackle on a running play.
“They were behind so they weren’t running the same offense,” with Shelley at quarterback, Gonzales said. “I knew they were going to have a hard time protecting some of our stunts.”
ASU, up 28-20, sacked Shelley twice on a fourth-quarter drive, forcing an apparent fumble that linebacker Tyler Johnson recovered. Even though the play was ruled an incomplete pass after review, Gonzales said it was his “most proud moment” in a game with many of them.
“That ball was floating around, and we do this every day in practice,” Gonzales said. “When there’s an incomplete pass, they’re expected to pick it up and run to it. At the beginning, they didn’t understand why. It almost paid big-time dividends today. They’re understanding our expectations.”
Offense rips nation’s No. 3 rush defense
Offensive coordinator Rob Likens was prepared for a low-scoring game and instead saw the Sun Devils rush for 251 yards against the nation’s No. 3 rush defense, allowing just 81.1 yards per game coming in.
Eno Benjamin had his sixth 100-yard rushing game (175) and is now over 1,000 (1,113) for his sophomore season, already third-best in ASU Pac-10/12 history.
ASU also passed for 251 yards with wide receivers N’Keal Harry and Brandon Aiyuk both having 100-yard games (161 Harry, 101 Aiyuk).
“We had a great plan and the assistant coaches did such a phenomenal job getting the guys ready to play,” Likens said. “I never in my wildest dreams thought it was going to be 38-20 and rush for 251 yards with 25 first downs. That’s pretty good.
“We’re not just running outside zone. We’re running power, counter zone, all kinds of different schemes. We have so much volume, it did make it tough on guys defending us in the run game.”
Likens said he was proud of Wilkins for maintaining his poise after forcing a throw while running to his left that Utah intercepted in the third quarter.
On Harry, who caught three touchdowns including a 61-yarder and again reversed field for a 35-yard gain, Likens said, “I don’t even know what to say because you can’t coach that. Everything inside me wants to choke him and yell at him then he circles the field. I’m shaking my head like only this guy can do this then he was guy away from doing it again.
“It goes against everything you believe in. It’s like when a quarterback throws it back across his body, you’re like, No, no, no, yes.’ “