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ASU football rewind: Takeaways, grades, personnel notes from win over Utah

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(Photo: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports)

Arizona State on Saturday posted its first conference road win in two years, defeating Utah 30-10 in Salt Lake City. The Sun Devils improved to 4-3 and 3-1 in the Pac-12.

Let’s review:

3 takeaways

1. This surge is not a fluke. For the second consecutive week, Arizona State played top-level defense. Think about this: In Week 1, ASU gave up 549 yards to New Mexico State. Over the past two weeks, against Washington and Utah, the Sun Devils have allowed 495 – combined. Once upon a time, ASU was the poster child for giving up big plays. Over the past two weeks, the Sun Devils have given up nothing over 24 yards. Give the coaching staff credit – this is a stunning reversal, one many did not think possible.

2. The offensive line deserves credit as well. The Sun Devils have not produced big plays, but they are moving the ball and sustaining drives. In some ways, it’s a modern day three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust. Quick, short passes. Strong runs between the tackles. Creative, yet not risky. Over the past two weeks, ASU has had seven drives of 10 or more plays. Five produced points. This not only takes time off the clock, it keeps a thin defense rested.

3. Everyone takes the penalties for granted. Utah on Saturday had two players ejected for targeting – in one series. Under coach Todd Graham, ASU has had one targeting penalty in six years. Against Utah, the Sun Devils committed two penalties for 25 yards. (Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett questioned one, a pass-interference flag on redshirt-freshman CB Chase Lucas.) Overall, ASU ranks first nationally in fewest penalties (22) and second in fewest penalty yards (31 per game).

Offense

Yes, the Sun Devils left points on the field in the first quarter. It could’ve cost them. But overall, they were efficient. In a sport where quick scores get all the attention, the Sun Devils have molded an efficient ball-control offense, and it’s working for them. Against Washington, they had an eight-minute drive. Against Utah, they had a 94-yard drive. ASU rushed for 205 yards against the Utes, the second time in three weeks it has passed 200. Senior RBs Demario Richard (18-93 yards, TD) and Kalen Ballage (14-75) had their longest rushes of the season, and they came on back-to-back plays. Richard for 25. Ballage for 35. … ASU converted 8 of 16 third downs. On one third and short, junior LG Sam Jones and sophomore LT Cohl Cabral lined up as fullbacks. … Sophomore WR N’Keal Harry had eight catches for 72 yards. His 51 receptions rank 10th nationally. He did, however, have a drop that led to Manny Wilkins’ third interception of the season. The junior QB completed 19 of 29 for 140 yards. He also rushed for 18 yards and a TD. In the second quarter, he took a hard helmet-to-helmet hit but stayed in the game. … Overall, ASU ran 15 more plays than Washington.

Grade: B+

After forcing just five turnovers over the season’s first six games, ASU produced four against Utah, all interceptions. Senior LB J’Marcus Rhodes, redshirt-freshman CB Chase Lucas, junior LB Christian Sam and junior LB Jay Jay Wilson each picked off Tyler Huntley passes. Wilson returned his 20 yards for a TD. Sam should’ve returned his for a score, but he stumbled, which prompted teasing from defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. … The Sun Devils didn’t produce many negative plays (two sacks, six TFLs) but their tackling, for the second week in a row, was outstanding. Rhodes and senior FS Chad Adams both had nice open-field tackles. … ASU held Utah to 3 of 10 on third down. … In addition to his pick six, Wilson also got to Huntley twice, forcing incomplete passes by grabbing the quarterback’s arm. … Biggest mistake: A coverage bust late in the third quarter that allowed Utah WR Samson Nacua to go untouched down the middle. Alas, Huntley overthrew him.

Grade: A

Special teams

When the offense stalled in the first quarter, Brandon Ruiz did not let the Sun Devils down. The freshman kicked field goals of 47, 40 and 30 yards to give ASU a 9-0 lead. Overall, Ruiz is 11 of 15 on the season. He also posted touchbacks on 4 of 7 opportunities. … After a slow start, sophomore punter Michael Sleep-Dalton has played well. He pinned Utah on the 11, 11 and 4. Overall, Sleep-Dalton averaged 36.8 yards on four punts. Behind his efforts, the Sun Devils won the field-position battle. Average-field position for Utah: the Utah 19. Average for ASU: the ASU 33. … The Sun Devils didn’t get much out of the return game, but Utah didn’t provide many opportunities. To counter Utah’s tendency to roll one way and then punt across the field, the Sun Devils used sophomore WR N’Keal Harry as an extra returner.

Grade: B+

Personnel

As expected, senior DE/LB Alani Latu – ASU’s leader in sacks – did not play because of a left-foot injury suffered in the Washington win. … Junior NT Renell Wren earned his first start, but like the previous week, he split time with sophomore George Lea. … Sophomore Zach Robertson started at RT but junior Quinn Bailey also saw action. … Junior WR Jalen Harvey suffered a right-leg injury in the first quarter and did not return. A decent sign: Harvey stayed in uniform and kept his helmet in hand, suggesting a return was possible. … Sophomore RG Steven Miller left in the fourth quarter with a minor issue but appeared to be OK. … Junior QB Blake Barnett saw his second action of the season, taking over on ASU’s final drive. … Sophomore WR Kyle Williams left the locker room wearing a protective boot. I’m not sure what the issue was, but sometimes players do this for precautionary reasons. … WR John Humphrey had his first catch since Week 1, a 2-yard grab in the second quarter. He missed three-plus games with a knee injury.

With first place in the Pac-12 South at stake, ASU hosts No. 21 USC on Saturday. The Trojans are coming off Saturday’s 49-14 loss at Notre Dame. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:45 p.m.

Contact Doug Haller at 602-444-4949 or at doug.haller@arizonarepublic.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/DougHaller. Download and subscribe to the ASU Pick Six Podcast, available on iTunes.

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