Sun Devils take a leap forward with 30-10 win over Utah

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ASU running back Kalen Ballage hurdles over defenders (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) ASU running back Kalen Ballage hurdles over defenders (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Would the real Arizona State please stand up?

After shocking the college football world a week ago by beating No. 5 Washington, many still questioned the Sun Devils. They had stumbled out of the gates with a 1-2 record to begin the season, and their defensive showing against the Huskies stood in stark contrast to their performance over the last two seasons.

Improbable upsets happen, and lightning can strike once. So with a road trip to face a tough Utah Utes team ahead, the Sun Devil coaching staff used that doubt as motivation during the week.

"Everybody's going to be watching," said ASU defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. "Are you a fluke? Can you go out and execute?"

Those questions have been answered.

No, Arizona State is not a fluke. They're a good football team.

"We're playing our best football right now," ASU head coach Todd Graham said.

ASU's defense once again rose up to the challenge, holding Utah to just 265 total yards and forcing four turnovers as ASU cruised to a 30-10 victory. The win snapped a nine-game road losing streak for the Sun Devils in Pac-12 play.

"The defense is playing at an elite level right now," said ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins. "It's hard to beat a team that holds you to 10 points."

Arizona State also rediscovered their running game, rushing for 205 yards and two touchdowns on the day. Demario Richard led the way with a season-best 93 yards, with fellow senior Kalen Ballage adding 75. 

"We're starting to get that push up front," said Richard of the team's offensive line.

"Our guys came out with an attitude that we needed to run the ball to win this game," Wilkins added.

The tone was set early.

ASU took the game's opening possession 46 yards in 11 plays that ended with a 47-yard Brandon Ruiz field goal. On the third play of Utah's ensuing drive, J'Marcus Rhodes intercepted a tipped pass by Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley. That drive would end with another Ruiz field goal to give the Sun Devils a quick 6-0 lead.

Chalk up the fast start to that week of preparation and answering the "Are you a fluke?" questions.

"Everything we did in the game, we did in practice," said ASU linebacker Christian Sam. "It's no surprise when we go out there and execute."

ASU added a third Ruiz field goal later in the quarter to extend their lead to 9-0.

Utah's stout defense was keeping ASU out of the endzone, but the Sun Devils, in turn, were dominating the Utes' offense. Like every previous meeting between these division rivals, the game became a blue-collar slugfest. Unlike their last two meetings, ASU was landing more blows, and they were taking their toll.

With 5:09 left in the first half, ASU took over possession at their six-yard line. On the first play, Richard ran for 25 yards. The next play, Ballage exploded for 35. Two plays later, N'Keal Harry made a one-handed catch along the sideline for 18 yards. They marched down the field as time ticked away. With just 40 seconds left in the half, Richard plunged into the endzone for the touchdown to give ASU a 16-0 halftime edge.

Of all the surprising statistics at the half, perhaps none stood out more than ASU's 172-34 edge in rushing yards. Richard credited the team's success on the ground, both on offense and defense, to the tone set in practice.

"We compete against D.J. (Calhoun), and Christian (Sam), and JoJo (Wicker), and (Tashon) Smallwood," Richard said. "We come in knowing that if we don't run the ball hard, they're going to knock our heads off in practice. We just push each other to be great."

Like last week, ASU held a surprising halftime lead over a heavily-favored opponent. Would it last?

Utah initially made things interesting to open the second half. They drove 40 yards in 10 plays, but the Sun Devils were able to force them into a long field goal. The lead was trimmed to 16-3, but then things got...well, a little weird. 

Three Wilkins completions to Harry moved ASU to midfield, but then Wilkins took a hard shot to the head on a short run. Utah's Donavan Thompson was subsequently called for targeting and was ejected from the game. Three plays later, Wilkins fumbled on a carry and Utah appeared to recover. Momentum turn? Not so fast, as that ruling was reversed upon review and ASU maintained possession.

Shortly thereafter, Wilkins completed a six-yard pass to Kyle Williams that brought up a fourth down-and-1, from the Utah two-yard line. Decision time for ASU. 

Or maybe not. 

The replay officials in the booth upstairs signaled down to the officials on the field to review the play for another possible targeting call. After review, they found that Corrion Ballard indeed used the crown of his helmet, and ASU was given a first-and-goal from the one-yard-line. With Ballard now ejected, Wilkins capped the drive on the next play with a touchdown run.

It was just that kind of day for the Sun Devils.

With the Utes on the ropes, ASU delivered the knockout blow midway through the fourth quarter, and did so from an unlikely source.

In Week 3, ASU lost starting Devilbacker Koron Crump for the year due to a torn ACL, and last week his replacement, Alani Latu suffered a leg injury that kept him out of Saturday's game. In their place came converted tight end Jay Jay Wilson, who had only played on defense for the last three weeks. Wilson entered the year with high expectations on offense, but had failed to contribute. That changed against Utah.

Wilson intercepted Huntley, ASU's fourth interception of the day, and returned the ball 20 yards for the touchdown to secure the win.

It was a great moment for Wilson, and embodied the do whatever it takes to win mentality of the 2017 Sun Devils.

"I feel like my experience on the team is like the experience of the whole team," Wilson said. "We've been up and down. We've shown flashes, but now I feel we've found our identity. Today, I found my identity on defense."

It was also a testament to the efforts of ASU's coaching staff, who endured rough stretches and learned from some mistakes. 

"Both our coordinators have come in and adapted tremendously," Graham said. "Our players deserve the opportunity to do the things they were recruited to do."

The win moves ASU to 4-3 overall and, more importantly, 3-1 in Pac-12 play. With the bar now raised, the Sun Devil players are eyeing bigger things.

"The dam is broke," Sam said. "We just set the standard" 

The victory also solidifies the Sun Devils' place as a legitimate threat in the Pac-12 South, although they'd prefer not to view it that way.

"When teams start to have success, the biggest enemy is complacency," Wilkins said. "As long as we continue to play like underdogs, as long as we continue to play like people don't show us respect, that's the biggest part. It's not being complacent."

"We get about seven minutes to celebrate this, and then you have the next really good team to play," Graham said.

That next team is USC, who will enter the game at 4-1 in Pac-12 play. The stakes for next Saturday's game in Tempe are significant. Win, and you control the South division race.

But you won't catch the Sun Devils looking ahead.

"We just need to put our head down and go to work," said Wilkins.

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