TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) — Two weeks ago, following their dispiriting home loss to Stanford, Arizona State was at a crossroads in their season, and perhaps, their vision for the program.
The loss had dropped them below .500 at 3-4, and with a daunting schedule up ahead, their prospects of Pac-12 South division contention and bowl eligibility were dim.
Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, and thanks to some standout performances from their brightest stars, the spotlight is now firmly the Sun Devils.
One week after beating the USC Trojans on the road, ASU took down No. 16 Utah 38-20 in impressive fashion to get their season back on track.
The Utes came into the game as one of the nation’s hottest teams, winners of four straight and owners of one of the most punishing defenses in the country. The Sun Devils knew it was going to be a tough task.
“The guy that doesn’t blink is going to win, because we’re going to be in a fight,” said ASU head coach Herm Edwards.
ASU did not blink.
Behind three touchdowns by junior wide receiver N’Keal Harry and a resurgent defensive effort in the second half, ASU now finds themselves right back in the mix for the division title.
With a big road win under their belt, the Sun Devils were aiming to avoid a let down when the Utes came to Tempe.
“I saw the look in everybody’s eyes this week at practice,” said ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins. “We were going to be ready to roll.”
That intensity manifested into a fast start for the Sun Devils.
With a good mix of running and passing plays, Wilkins marched his team down the field against the nation’s No. 7 ranked defense. The drive appeared to stall on a third down incompletion inside the Utah 10-yard line, but ASU was given a fresh set of downs due to a targeting penalty. Two plays later, Eno Benjamin ran six yards for the touchdown.
On the next possession, Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley fired a deep pass to an open Jaylen Dixon deep downfield. The pass hit Dixon in the hands, but it was bobbled at the goal line, and ASU freshman safety Aashari Crosswell intercepted it and returned the ball 47 yards.
“When the ball was in the air, the sun was in my eye,” Crosswell admitted. “I couldn’t even see it.”
“I didn’t think Aashari was going to catch it,” said ASU redshirt freshman linebacker Tyler Johnson, who provided pressure on the play.
That drive ended with the first of three Wilkins-to-Harry touchdown passes to propel ASU to a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
“We didn’t throw it a lot,” Edwards said, “but we made it count.”
Utah and their run game would answer back, when Zack Moss capped off the ensuing drive with a touchdown run to close the gap.
“The first quarter was like, I don’t like what I’m watching,” Edwards said of his run defense. “We had dirty eyes, not playing our gap responsibilities. I knew that was going to happen, because you have a bunch of young guys. We have to fix our eyes. We have to play with clean eyes.”
Utah tacked on a field goal early in the second quarter to make it 14-10, but ASU’s chance to match was foiled when Brandon Ruiz’s 39-yard field goal attempt was missed.
After the early interception, Huntley found a groove, both as a runner and a passer, and his touchdown throw to Samson Nacua put Utah ahead 17-14 with just over two minutes left in the half.
Wilkins and Harry put that time to good use. They connected twice on their last drive of the half, the final completion a 23-yard score. However, Harry remained down after the play, and went into the locker room early to have his right shoulder examined.
“I just had to check myself mentally,” Harry said. “I was going through some pain. I knew in the second half, I had to be tough. On that last touchdown, Manny did a great job staying in the pocket, and he took a hit while he threw it.”
ASU was up 21-17 at the half, but they knew that it was far from a perfect effort.
“When we came in at halftime, we needed the energy to be good in the locker room,” Wilkins said. “We needed to be positive about everything and come out swinging.”
Edwards challenged the defense at the half to rebound, and they did on the opening drive of the second half. True freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson intercepted Huntley, and his return set the Sun Devils up just inside Ute territory.
However, Wilkins made an ill-advised throw while under pressure, and it was intercepted by Utah’s Jaylon Johnson.
As Wilkins ran off to the sidelines, his young defense made sure to pick him up.
“‘We got you,’ Wilkins said of their message. “There were no down faces, no negative energy at all. That’s what lets this team persevere at the end of the game.”
The defense did have him, forcing a quick punt.
Later in the quarter, Huntley was hit on a throw and remained down, motionless, for several minutes with what turned out to be a broken collarbone. Backup quarterback Jason Shelley came in and led Utah into ASU’s redzone, but the Sun Devils were able to hold the Utes to a field goal.
“We adjusted very well,” Edwards said of his defense. “The players adjusted. We really did a good job keeping them out of the endzone.”
Utah’s defense could not do the same.
On ASU’s next possession, Wilkins hit Harry on a slant—and despite a defensive holding penalty—powered through and raced 61 yards for a touchdown.
“For him to have moments like this, it’s very special for me,” Wilkins said, “because I know how hard he works. I know how much this game and this sport means to him.”
“That’s N’Keal,” Benjamin said. “That’s what he does.”
Smelling blood in the water, ASU’s defense went after Shelley and the Ute offense, forcing yet another three-and-out.
“The whole defense, in the second half, played tough,” Edwards said. “They played angry. They played fast.”
With an eight-point lead with just over nine minutes left, ASU went into ball control mode.
“Then it’s about managing the clock,” Edwards said. “We play the clock now, we don’t play the opponent.”
ASU’s drive appeared to stall when they were forced to punt, but a muff by Britain Covey was recovered by ASU. What followed was an odd sequence of penalties on both teams, but the end result was a first down for the Sun Devils. A few plays later, Benjamin burst through a hole and raced 44 yards to seal the win.
“We’re a much more physically dominating team than we were earlier in the season,” said Benjamin, who ran for 175 yards on the day.
Utah’s last ditch effort was thwarted when Kobe Williams intercepted a Shelley pass in the endzone.
“When he does it, I go ‘OK, here he goes. Just keep running.'”
– Edwards on his reaction when N’Keal Harry reverses field.
The Critical Moment
Few teams can withstand the loss of their starting quarterback, and Utah proved to be no exception.
After Huntley’s injury, Shelley managed to keep that drive going for a field goal, but after that, the Utes were entirely held in check.
On the first two drives after that field goal, Utah ran six plays for -5 yards. The Utes totaled just 33 yards on 11 plays in the fourth quarter.
It is an unfortunate part of the game, but one that all teams face. ASU has had their share of bad injury luck in the past, but today, they were on the other side.
ASU has had their most impressive offensive showings of the season over the last two weeks, and the reason why is simple.
Feed the good guys.
“Can 3 touch the ball and can 1 touch the ball?, ” Edwards said. “How many times do they get to touch it? That’s the design of any offense. You get your good players the ball.”
In this case, 3 is running back Eno Benjamin and 1 is wide receiver N’Keal Harry. Last week, the pair combined for 388 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns.
On Saturday afternoon against Utah, they tallied 336 yards and five more scores.
That’s 724 yards and nine touchdowns over two weeks. That will get it done.
ASU’s offensive line had a sterling performance, allowing ASU to rush for 251 yards and average 5.0 yards per carry, both season-highs allowed by Utah. They also did not let Wilkins get sacked for the fifth time this year.
Wilkins turned in what may have been his strongest performance of the year. He completed 19 of his 24 throws for 285 yards and three scores. He remained poised in the pocket and showed improved accuracy on his downfield passes. Wilkins also involved Brandon Aiyuk in the passing game, and the junior college transfer responded with 101 yards.
“Running the football helps us. Quarterback has played magnificent. Big plays in the passing game as well as the running game,” Edwards said. “(Offensive coordinator Rob) Likens and that offensive unit, they are mindful of suggestions that I would have. They’ve done a nice job of finding out how we can get Manny throwing the football better. How we get N’Keal in the offense.”
Right now, this is the explosive unit most expected to see coming into the season.
Another week, another step forward for ASU’s young defense.
The Sun Devils continued to start four freshmen, and all made big impacts. Robertson and Crosswell made interceptions, while Johnson added seven tackles and fellow linebacker Darien Butler had two.
Most importantly, Saturday was the first game since the opener that ASU’s defense generated multiple turnovers.
“Taking the ball away was big for us,” Edwards said. “That’s the defense we want to become. Take the ball away.”
Utah entered the game averaging 41 points and 482 yards over their last four games. On Saturday afternoon, ASU held them to 20 points and just 325 yards.
With so much youth—ASU starts just two seniors on defense—it was a tantalizing glimpse of ASU’s future.
“They’re going to be really special here in the next couple of years,” Wilkins said. “They’re starting to get their head on their shoulders the right way and playing fast and playing hard.”
He made all of the highlight reels with his dazzling punt return and incredible one-handed catch last week against USC, and N’Keal Harry kept it going with another amazing performance.
Harry caught nine passes for 161 yards and three scores, and showed why he is widely expected to be a first round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
“N’Keal is fabulous player,” Edwards said.
Harry has had success lines up wide, but over the last two weeks, ASU has also used him inside, creating nightmares for defensive backs trying to slow down the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Chandler High School product.
“Moving him inside to the slot has helped,” Harry said. “I was big on moving him inside to get some match ups.”
For Wilkins, having a target who can make every catch look easy has been crucial.
“Having a guy like that to throw the football to, it’s very special,” Wilkins said.
The third quarter had been ASU’s biggest bad habit this season. Against Power 5 competition, they had been outscored 62-30, including three straight weeks of giving up 14 points in the quarter to their opponent.
While the Sun Devils did not score in the third quarter, they held Utah to just three points.
“The third quarter was important for us, it was good to see us competing in the third quarter,” Edwards said. “We needed to play good in the third quarter. We just needed to do that. I think our home crowd helped us. We got going again.”
One game does not make a trend, and ASU managed just 60 yards of offense and turned the ball over once, but seeing the defense come out of the locker room with some fire was an encouraging sign.
The Hot Take
This is Herm Edwards’ vision for Arizona State football.
A run-heavy offense that takes selective shots downfield. A defense that is aggressive and generates multiple turnovers.
They’re not there yet, but each week, the Sun Devils seem to be getting closer to that goal. It’s part of the transformation process.
“I’m learning my team, and I think they’re learning their head coach too,” Edwards said.
Beyond any scheme, formation, or play call, the most encouraging sign of the process is ASU’s mentality.
In year’s past, Sun Devil teams would often let problems snowball. Now, even though they may fall behind or commit critical errors, they continue to fight until the final whistle. They are becoming comfortable with adversity.
It’s a trait that good teams want and great teams need.
The Big Picture
And just like that, ASU controls their fate.
If ASU wins their final three games—home against UCLA, and road trips to Oregon and Arizona—they will win the Pac-12 South crown and play in the conference title game for a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Even if they fall short of that mark, they are now in a great position to make a bowl game, needing just one more win.
But don’t count on the Sun Devils feeling complacent.
“We can’t be too high off of this,” Wilkins warned after the game. “We have to go back to work this next week with the same attitude we had this past week.”
The Next Step
With their destiny back in their own hands, the Sun Devils will host UCLA next Saturday afternoon, with kickoff set for noon. After a dreadful 0-5 start under new head coach Chip Kelly, the Bruins have played better on both sides of the ball over the last month.
As the Pac-12 has proven, no opponent can be taken lightly.
“It don’t matter who we play,” Wilkins said. “We have to treat every team like they are the best team in the country. If you have that attitude, there’s no excuses.”
The Extra Points
- Harry passed John Jefferson for third on ASU’s all-time receptions list.
- He also became just the sixth Sun Devil to surpass 2,500 yards receiving in a career.
- Wilkins now has 47 career touchdown passes, good enough for 7th on ASU’s career rankings.
- Benjamin became the 20th player in school history to top 1,000 yards rushing in a season. He is currently on pace to break the school’s single-season rushing record.
- ASU wore throwback Sparky helmets to mark their Homecoming game. This was ASU’s first win after four losses in the Sparky design since they reintroduced them in 2014.
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