TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was a nightmare for the first three quarters.
The Arizona State Sun Devils, ranked No. 23 in the nation, were trailing the Utah Utes 19-7 heading into the fourth quarter, and that deficit felt a lot greater than the scoreboard indicated.
A Sun Devil offense that had topped 50 points and 500 yards in each of the prior three games was stuck with just seven points and 117 yards to that point. The primary culprit for these failures was an ASU offensive line that had surrendered five sacks and 11 tackles-for-loss to that point, preventing any kind of momentum from building.
For any comeback attempt to be made, it had to start up front.
“It was a gut check kind of moment for us," said senior left tackle Evan Finkenberg.
Consider the gut checked.
Finkenberg and his linemates stepped up to the challenge when the team needed it most. They limited Utah to just a single play in the backfield during the quarter, a period in which ASU amassed 176 yards and the 13 points they needed. The 20-19 win improved ASU to 7-2 on the year, and most importantly, kept the Sun Devils in the pole position in the Pac-12 South title race
A win is a win, but Finkenberg did not like the fact that it took ASU so long to adjust to Utah's new defensive schemes.
“They had a great gameplan coming in," Finkenberg said. "They did a lot of different line pressures and a lot of line movements, things we didn’t see in their prior games. Every time they come off a bye week, they’re going to throw new wrinkles at us. We were able to adjust late in the game. We needed to adjust quicker.”
While everyone is happy to leave with a key conference road win, the nature of the victory over the Utes is serving the two-fold purpose of morale booster and wake up call for the Sun Devil offensive line.
"I think it’s something very positive for our team, that we can face adversity like that," Finkenberg said. "It also shows that we need to come to work every day. We need to make sure that we are studying our opponent, and really understand what they are going to try to do to stop our run offense and passing. It’s something we need to execute harder on in practice.”
The struggle of the offensive line in Salt Lake City continued a troubling season long trend.
In the five games at Sun Devil Stadium, ASU's opponents are averaging 4.8 tackles-for-loss and 1.6 sacks per game. However, in the four games on the road, those numbers shoot up to 8.5 and 4.3, respectively, including the 12 tackles-for-loss (ASU's season-high) and six sacks (tied for the season-high) given up to the Utes.
Those numbers, Finkenberg believes, illustrate that a raucous and hostile crowd can have a tangible impact on the game.
“When the crowd is getting loud, especially on third downs, we’re always trying to communicate, trying to make sure we’ve all got the right people," Finkenberg said. "Sometimes, communication gets messed up because it’s so loud. We’re trying to do a better job, especially during practices when we go into the bubble and turn on loud music, making sure we’re yelling at each other and making sure we’re on the same page."
While reviewing the film of the Utah game, Finkenberg noticed that he and his fellow linemen were not executing as well as they have from a technical standpoint. Staying true to the fundamentals and exploding off the ball will be key areas of focus this week.
“As an offensive line, we have to stay lower in our run blocks. We didn’t really come off the ball," Finkenberg said. "Last game, because of the movement, we were a little bit soft sometimes and playing a little bit too high. As long as we stay low, pad under pad, that’s what we’ve been emphasizing today.”
While Utah was one of the nation's best teams at sacking the quarterback, this week's opponent , the Oregon State Beavers, have not had the same disruptive impact.
Oregon State ranks just 79th in the FBS in tackles for loss (5.6 per game) and 57th in sacks (2.0 per game). Despite those mediocre numbers, the ASU offensive line knows that there are plenty of playmaking Beavers that they must hold back.
“They are a very physical team," said Finkenberg. "They got some really quick, athletic guys up front and also at the linebacker level. They like to twist a little bit and bring some pressure.”
Holding back that pressure and giving the ASU playmakers the time and space to beat the Beavers will come down to the basics.
“We need to watch the line of scrimmage," Finkenberg said. "When you get the line of scrimmage and you are moving forward, and are expanding holes for the running backs, that’s when you know that the offense is really running. We start running our tempo a little better. We need to get these guys a little tired, and that’s something we’re working on.”