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ASU's inability to convert proves to be costly against Utah

Shane Dieffenbach Avatar
October 17, 2021

Figuring out what happened to Arizona State in the 35-21 loss to Utah almost leaves your head spinning. After a solid start, things unraveled quickly for ASU. Before they knew it, they were playing from behind after having a two-touchdown lead at the half. 

“We didn’t move the ball to score points and that’s a little frustrating on both sides of it, really, because we had been pretty good in the second halves, and just tonight, we were not,” Herm Edwards said.

The offense decided to move away from what was working. The defense teleported back to prior years when wrapping ‘em up and bringing them down was less of a focus. Special teams had one of the most embarrassing missed field goal attempts of the weekend, and penalties hurt ASU on both sides of the ball. 

Perhaps the most frustrating part of it all was watching the game unfold, as it was textbook ASU football. It turned out to be the same old story fans already know and dread: Arizona State loves to self-destruct. 

There was never a question as to whether it would be a war between the two teams. Going into the game, ASU was riding high following a 3-0 start to conference play and an improvement in consistency. Utah, on the other hand, was bouncing back after a disappointing start to the season. They’d found a renewed sense of purpose following the second death of a teammate in less than a year, looking to win it for them.

Not to mention, whoever took home the win also would take over as the leader of the Pac-12 South. Everything leading up to this game set up the perfect scene for an absolute meltdown by the Sun Devils, according to most fans. There’s a general apathetic feeling shared amongst most, as they’d seen situations all too similar to this in the past.

The first half of the game was where the Sun Devils showed their cracks. There were still obvious issues with the offensive line and the silent snap count, as the Sun Devils had a couple of false starts. Struggles to convert on third down also would come back to haunt ASU.

The defense looked much more dialed-in to start things off, coming up with a pair of interceptions to stop Utah in its tracks. Even with the offensive struggles in the first half, a large stress factor was eliminated due to the defense doing their part. Even so, ASU was not in the clear, something Edwards said he reminded his squad of at halftime. 

“Going in at halftime before we left for the second half I told them that this is a second-half football team. Just look at them play, they’re good in the second half and we didn’t match it on either side of the ball,” Edwards said. 

The third quarter was when things really started to go sideways in all aspects of the game. The Utes punched Arizona State in the mouth early, plowing their way into the end zone for a touchdown. It was the first time in weeks ASU had allowed a touchdown in the second half, and the Utes made it look like a cake walk. 

“They continued to make first downs and have substantial drives and we couldn’t get off the field,” Edwards said. “That kills you defensively, it puts you in a bad way. Then they got some momentum and they scored and they scored again and all of the sudden, the game is tied. Now you can feel the energy all of the sudden back in the stadium.”

“They brought the punch to us,” Pierce said. “Out-coached, outplayed. Just better execution by Utah. They came out in the second half and ran the ball and did exactly what they wanted. We didn’t do a good job at stopping the run and obviously their play-action game off that. And, the quarterback did a good job of moving around.” 

Instead of sticking to the more aggressive offensive play calling when taking the field, Arizona State started running the ball, which was a strategy proving to be costly. By playing less aggressive, the offense only was able to move the chains six times in the second half. 

“Offensively, we couldn’t hardly make first downs. We couldn’t move the ball and counter what they were doing to us,” Edwards said. 

Arizona State’s offense finally picked up a first down in the second half with less than five minutes left in the third quarter, surprising many. Leading up to the game, Arizona State led the conference on third-down conversions at a rate of 52 percent, a number the Sun Devils didn’t even approach Saturday night. 

At that point, Arizona State had already allowed Utah to come back and knot things up at 21, but the offensive struggles continued. ASU ultimately decided to settle on a field goal, unknowingly solidifying the momentum shift within the stadium. 

The kick was tipped, and from there, Utah was able to get in the heads of Arizona State.

ASU’s defense got torched in the third and fourth quarters, allowing Utah to score 28 unanswered points in the come-from-behind win. It was an unexpected series of events by a defense who had only given up 26 total second-half points all season leading up to the game. 

“We didn’t play well. We didn’t play well in the second half. It was shocking to kind of see,” Pierce said. 

All season long, it’s appeared nobody is able to beat Arizona State except themselves. Utah was no different, as penalties proved to be a costly error, arguably costing the Sun Devils yet another game.

ASU gave up 13 penalties for 115 yards total. It’s not surprising, given Arizona State is the most penalized team in the Pac-12. What is surprising is what caused the penalties to re-emerge, as things seemed to be trending in the right direction.

“You can’t do that and we know that,” Edwards said. “I don’t think any player goes out there to commit a foul, but we committed too many in certain instances of the game where it became real big. We overcame a couple of them, but we didn’t overcome enough of them, and that’s just too many fouls.”

Breaking down each team’s overall offensive performance, the stats really were close in terms of total yardage and completion between the quarterbacks. Cameron Rising passed for 247 yards, while Jayden Daniels passed for 237. On the ground, there was only a 60-yard differential between Utah and Arizona State.

Utah only had 70 more offensive yards than Arizona State, putting into perspective just how costly the penalty yards were. 

Edwards says his motivation for the team going forward will be working to control what they can control. With the loss, the players now have no control of their destiny, something Edwards knows was big for them. He also knows they still hold the ability to bounce back strong. There’s no time to sulk over the loss.

With five other crucial games to prepare for still, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and it starts each week at practice.

“This is our second loss of the season,” Edwards said. “It’s a tough one, because you’re exactly right. If you win this game you can control your destiny, now we don’t have control of it. We do have control of this, though: the ability to come back from this, when we play at home and win a football game again.” 

Edwards says they’ll use the bye this week to focus on cleaning things up before playing Washington State. According to ASU’s head coach, the new mentality needs to be they have a five-game season, and every single game and its outcome matters. 

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