ASU stifled in 34-13 loss to No. 13 Utah

Arizona State running back Xazavian Valladay (1) fends off Utah safety Sione Vaki during the...
Arizona State running back Xazavian Valladay (1) fends off Utah safety Sione Vaki during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)(Rick Scuteri | AP)
Published: Sep. 25, 2022 at 2:25 AM MST
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TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- Walking the field prior to Saturday night’s game, Shaun Aguano pondered some hypotheticals.

Fourth-and-1, what should I do? Go for it? Kick it?

After running through the situations, Arizona State’s interim head coach looked into the stands as fans filed in. He looked up at the massive video board on the northside of Sun Devil Stadium. In that moment, he simply felt blessed to be there.

Just six days ago, ASU announced that Herm Edwards was out as head coach and Aguano, then the team’s running backs coach, was tabbed to take over. It was not the way in which Aguano had envisioned taking over a program of his own, but it provided him with an opportunity he had long sought. There would be no easing in to the role, as Aguano and his Sun Devils played host to No. 13 Utah, the defending Pac-12 champions, to open conference play.

Before the game, Aguano asked his players just one thing: Play hard and we’ll see what happens.

What happened was the one-sided affair most expected. The Utah defense smothered the Sun Devils all night, notching five sacks and holding ASU to a program-record low six rushing yards. It was the third consecutive loss for ASU, dropping them to 1-3 on the season, and with the next two games on the schedule both against currently ranked teams, things may get worse before it gets better.

But for the ever-positive Aguano, the loss was a step in the right direction.

“This is going to be a process,” Aguano said. “I didn’t think that this would be four days and a miracle was going to hit. I got the kids’ attention, and they’re going to play, and we’re going to get better and better.”

The Ohana

“These kids have been through a lot, so I’m going to make sure I’m the rock for them no matter what.”

The Result

At his first press conference as the interim head coach, Aguano—of Hawaiian descent—discussed his philosophy of ohana, or “family.” He reinforced his belief that he was here not only to coach his players on the field, but to help mold them as young men.

Moments before ASU took the field, Aguano appeared with the team captains at the head of the tunnel, locked arm-in-arm, with the rest of the team right behind them. He then ran with his players as the team was introduced. While large scale changes were impossible in just a few days, this ohana era manifested in small, but noticeable ways.

Far more noticeable was the gap in current quality between the two Pac-12 rivals.

The Ute defense notched two sacks on ASU’s first drive, setting up a quick advantage in field position. Aided by a personal foul penalty on ASU’s Timarcus Davis, Utah struck first thanks to some trickery. Utah executed a flea flicker that had quarterback Cam Rising connect with Dalton Kincaid for a 29-yard touchdown.

A quick three-and-out by ASU’s offense gave the ball right back to the Utes, and rather than another quick strike, the Utes bullied their way down the field. Utah marched their way 70 yards over 10 plays as Rising and Kincaid connected again on a six-yard score to extend the lead to 14-0.

At the end of the first quarter, Utah held a 137 to -5 edge in total yards.

ASU’s first drive of the second quarter showed some promise. A Utah personal foul and a 13-yard run by X Valladay approached midfield. But ASU quarterback Emory Jones’ pass was intercepted by Clark Phillips.

“The guy made a great play,” Jones said. “He was playing eight yards off. He made a great play. He jumped me.”

ASU’s defense bent but ultimately held at their 5-yard line, forcing a short field goal to extend the Utah lead to 17-0. The Sun Devils got a jolt on the ensuing kickoff return as Daniyel Ngata went for 58 yards. The drive would stall just inside the Utah redzone, but ASU’s Carter Brown connected on a 36-yard field goal to get the Sun Devils on the board.

Utah was quick to regain control of the game. The Utes were able to convert a third-and-12 and a third-and-11 on a 10-play, 75-yard drive that was capped by a two-yard touchdown run by Ja’Quinden Jackson.

“It was just execution,” said ASU safety Khoury Bethley. “We gotta get off the field on third down, and we didn’t do that today. That came to bite us.”

ASU was able to tack on a field goal, this time a 47-yard Brown kick, to close the gap to 24-6 at halftime. In the locker room, Aguano said he saw a cohesive team, one that despite the turbulence of the last week, was remaining positive. He implored his players to simply focus on winning the second half.

After getting pushed around for much of the first half, the Sun Devil defense made a play, with Davis hauling in a tipped ball interception off Rising to set ASU up near midfield. A 21-yard run by Valladay provided promise that was quickly negated by an 11-yard sack of Jones that was initially flagged for targeting but picked up upon review. Jones’ scramble on fourth-and-8 was stopped well short of the sticks, and ASU turned it over on downs.

“When we get into those situations where our defense makes turnovers, we have to capitalize,” Jones said. “We weren’t able to do that. That’s something that we have to get better at as an offense.”

Utah responded with a bruising drive that included eight runs for 69 yards, with the final 11 coming from Jaylen Dixon on a jet sweep to put Utah up 31-6. The Utes added a field goal early in the fourth quarter, and ASU was poised to respond, driving to the Utah 17. But Jones was intercepted on a slant route intended for tight end Messiah Swinson, ending the threat.

“I was expecting my guy to do something kind of different,” said Jones. “They blitzed. They were in Cover 0 and blitzed all their guys. I had to get the ball off quick, and I did, and it was a little behind. It was a little miscommunication on our part.”

Jones was able to connect later in the quarter with Swinson on a garbage-time touchdown, an 11-yard score that helped the team avoid further historical offensive indignities. Despite the struggles, the Sun Devils did fight until the whole way through. They played for ohana.

“We played hard,” Bethley said. “You’re not going to see any quit in us. We played hard to the end today.”

The Critical Moment

Already trailing 14-0 with an offense that had totaled a loss of five yards over their first three drives, things were bleak in the second quarter. If the Sun Devils were going to make things interesting, they needed to do something now.

A personal foul on Utah linebacker Lander Barton gave ASU some momentum, and a nice run by Valladay pushed them near midfield. That’s when Jones, harassed all night by a relentless pass rush. made an error. He lofted a throw to wide receiver Elijhah Badger that Clark Phillips was able to jump for the interception.

“I got a little antsy in the pocket at times and kind of starting to look at the rush a little bit,” Jones said. “That’s something that I have to get better at. The offensive line has to protect better. The running backs have to protect better. We’re all in this together.”

To add insult to injury, Badger was flagged for a facemask penalty while tackling Phillips, which allowed Utah to start at the ASU 31. Eight plays later, Utah kicked a field goal for a comfortable three-score lead.

The Offense

Some of the final overall numbers will deceive those who didn’t watch: 267 total yards, 4.8 yards per play. Bad, but not that bad. But ASU’s offense on Saturday was indeed that bad. Through three quarters, ASU managed just six points, 164 yards, and lost seven yards on the ground.

That bad.

“We just didn’t really execute,” Jones said.

Utah set the tone early with two sacks on ASU’s first drive, and they consistently beat up on the Sun Devils’ offensive line. With the running game completely neutralized, they could focus on coming after Jones.

“We didn’t take advantage of our first downs to give them a shot at second-and-5 or less where we were not predictable,” said Aguano. “I thought Utah’s defense was able to pin their ears back and come at us.”

Jones finished the day completing 21 of 36 throws for 261 yards and the late touchdown to Swinson. The relentless pressure got to him early and often, and he sped through his reads as the game went on.

“We got to protect better,” Jones said. “We got behind the chains a little bit. It’s tough to run the ball behind the sticks. I didn’t play my best ball today. That is something that I have to lock into this week.”

Badger led the team with five catches for 76 yards. Gio Sanders (38 yards) and Valladay (29) each had four receptions.

But it was in the trenches where the greatest struggles were found. ASU simply couldn’t protect Jones or open holes for the run game.

“I did like Emory’s poise in the pocket,” Aguano sad. “There’s a lot of duress, and there’s bullets flying at him. He couldn’t get his feet set and couldn’t make those throws.”

For the third-straight week, Jones was off target on a number of passes. It’s something he knows he must hone in immediately.

“I’m confident in everything the coaches ask of me on the field,” Jones said. “My teammates are most confident in everything I can do on the field. Football is a hard game. You get into situations that you have to move off platform. You have guys right in your face.”

He had no help from a ground game that produced the worst single-game showing in program history. Valladay, who had topped 100 yards in the first three games of the year, was held to 30 on eight attempts, was the lone highlight on the six-yard total effort.

Aguano is now left to work with his staff to devise a gameplan to try and keep pace with the explosive USC attack next week.

“If I don’t make adjustments, shame on me because these kids need to get the best of us as a coaching staff,” Aguano said. “I’ll make sure that I go back and make adjustments on what I think.”

The Defense

A week after being run over and dominated in a shocking loss to Eastern Michigan, ASU’s defense had another tough night. Utah put up 465 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per play despite easing up late in the game.

“We didn’t capitalize on a great week of practice, because that’s what we truly had,” said defensive tackle Nesta Jade Silvera, who had 12 tackles. “We still believe in everything Coach Aguano is saying.”

The Utes used a stable of backs to run for 205 yards on the night, while Rising provided balance with 260 yards through the air. The Ute offensive line gave him plenty of time in the pocket, allowing him to find receivers on multiple third-and-long conversions. ASU especially struggled throughout the night when the Utes quickened their pace.

“The up-tempo, it gets tough because you’re keeping defensive linemen on the field without substitution,” said Aguano.

One highlight was the play of cornerback Isaiah Johnson, who made his first career start in place of the injured Ro Torrence. He made four tackles and played well in coverage.

“I thought Isaiah did a great job,” Aguano said. “He’s going to be there to give Ro a tough time. I love that competition.”

Bethley led the team with 14 tackles, and Kyle Soelle had 12 to notch his third consecutive game of 10 or more.

But with major questions on offense, ASU’s defense knows that they must improve if there is any hope to salvage the season.

“Ultimately, it just comes to us executing,” Bethley said. “We didn’t do that today.”

The Question: Can they build on this?

The game was never really in doubt. Utah entered as a 15-point favorite, controlled the game the entire way, and had their way with the Sun Devils on both sides of the ball. With eight more games to go, Aguano knows the needed improvement will come from him.

“It will start with me,” Aguano said. “Our coaches feel like they didn’t do a good job. Now I need to make sure I pick them up, then make sure our kids are picked up come watching our game.”

Following a promising first two games, the defense has been bullied in the last two. Despite some exciting talent on offense, inconsistency and poor line play have derailed the attack. The to-do list for ASU’s interim head coach continues to grow, but with his typical optimistic approach, he says he is up for the task.

“There will be no quit from me,” said Agauno. “There will be no quit from our staff. And we will keep working, whatever comes about. I’m honored to be a part of this staff and the head coach of these kids. We’ll make sure we take care of our business come next week.”

Aguano knows it will be a process. His staff knows it will be a process. His players know it will be a process. But one that cannot become drawn out.

“We have eight games left,” Jones said. “Everything is not going to change in one game.”

Despite the struggles and despite the uncertainty of the future, Aguano is confident the results are on the way.

“We’ll get there,” Aguano said. “I promise you, we’ll get there.”

The Next Step

ASU will hit the road for their final trip to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum next Saturday when they face USC. The Trojans entered the weekend ranked No. 7 in the AP poll and rallied to beat a tough Oregon State team 17-14 on the road to improve to 4-0 on the season.

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. with TV on ESPN.

The Extra Point

  • Before Saturday, ASU’s fewest rushing yards in a single game was 13, done twice (vs. UTEP in 1966 and Wichita in 1946).