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November 10, 2013

Notebook: ASU overcomes struggles in win

Arizona State senior defensive tackle Will Sutton's interception at the end of the fourth quarter was not the play of the game.

Yes, Sutton read the play perfectly. Yes, Utah sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson made a terrible decision to throw the ball almost directly to Sutton. Yes, Sutton grabbed it, went to the ground and sprinted in celebration.

And yes, it did seal a 20-19 victory for ASU.

But a play earlier in the game defined the way ASU played for the majority of the game. It was not as exciting. It was not positive for ASU. It started a bad trend that caused the Sun Devils to play from behind for most of the game.

It was actually a penalty called on ASU's offense.

It was ASU's second offensive drive and junior quarterback Taylor Kelly was pressured. Kelly back-peddled and threw the ball at the ground as he was brought down by Utah junior linebacker Jacoby Hale. Kelly was called for intentional grounding and the play resulted in a loss of 16 yards. ASU punted three plays later.

Utah defenders got into the ASU backfield, Kelly made a poor decision and the offense moved backward because of the penalty.

ASU coach Todd Graham has said all season, if his team's offense does not commit penalties, turn the ball over or give up negative plays, it will score points.

Kelly's intentional grounding proved Graham's theory and Utah scored on its ensuing drive with an 8-yard pass from Wilson to junior wide receiver Dres Anderson.

The next ASU offensive drive also ended abruptly. The cause, junior running back Deantre Lewis lost a fumble. Lewis was lucky ASU's defense stepped and the Utes only got one first down before punting.

ASU's next drive was finished after only one first down. This time, Kelly was sacked twice by the Utah defense for a total of six negative yards and ASU punted it away.

At this point in the game the Sun Devils had four drives and seven total points. The offense did not start the game the way a team that averaged 46.6 points usually would outside of its first possession, when it scored a touchdown.

"In my opinion, I haven't seen the film, that's the best that we've been defended," Graham said. "They did a tremendous job."

ASU shored up two of its problems after the first four drives.

Penalties were not really a factor. As a team ASU was only called for three penalties for a total of 14 yards.

And Lewis's fumble was the only ASU turnover of the game.

The Utah defense continued to wreak havoc in the ASU backfield and finished with 12 tackles for loss and six sacks.

Since the offense seemed to be moving backward almost every drive it could not put any points on the board, perpetually in third and long situations. It did not score again until there was 13:12 in the fourth quarter.

"Obviously we had a lot of negative yardage plays and they did a great job keeping us off rhythm," Graham said.

Defense answers the call

With their offense struggling to move the ball, the Sun Devil defense made sure Utah couldn't move it either. It forced nine three and outs and kept the Utah offense from establishing any offensive rhythm.

After the first half of offensive woes, the Sun Devils went into the locker room down 9-7. Kelly said the defense kept the team in the game.

"Our defense [did] a great job, holding them to nine points, with all of our three and outs," Kelly said.

Graham said the Utah offense initially showed a lot of different formations the defense did not prepare for during the week. He decided to simplify the defense and said his players did a phenomenal job adjusting quickly during the game.

Graham said the team prepared for every kind of formation in Camp Tontozona. So he told them to think back to those days and implemented that game plan.

"We had a very specific game plan to what they were going to do and we didn't run any of it because they had run a lot of different things," Graham said. "Our defense was very poised. Nobody was panicked…In camp we go through all of those scenarios. So we just went back and said, 'Hey, if they do this, we do this,' and our guys just picked it up, did it and had no problem with it."

Their defense started by shutting down the Utah rushing attack. Utah running backs sophomore Bubba Poole and senior Kelvin York combined for 82 yards on 29 carries.

The only Utah player who had success on the ground was the quarterback.

The ASU defense started off the game in perfect fashion with three tackles for loss all involving senior defensive end Gannon Conway. Utah was forced punt.

The Utah coaches must have noticed the ASU defenders were coming hard up field and were leaving the middle of the field wide open.

After the first drive, the Utah coaches called a lot of quarterback designed runs up the middle and on pass plays Wilson would escape the pocket and scramble for big gains. Wilson ended the game with 44 yards rushing, including a 21-yard gain.

Sutton said the defense expected Wilson to run the ball and he caused the defense to adjust its attack on the quarterback.

"We knew watching film, he likes to run the ball," Sutton said. "He's a quarterback that's going to run the ball. The main objective was trying to stop him…They really forced us to stay home and play at home defense."

Wilson did not have as much success throwing the ball.

It appeared he may not be fully recovered from the hand injury he suffered in the Stanford game. He only went 6-21 for 121 yards. Take away the 55-yard pass Wilson threw to Anderson with about five minutes left in the third quarter and Wilson had a sub-par game.

The bomb from Wilson to Anderson was another impacting moment of the game.

It was one of the only plays in which either offense showed some kind of production. It led to a 12-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to senior wide receiver Sean Fitzgerald to put the Utes up 19-7.

Graham gave credit to his secondary for stopping the Utes' passing game. He told the secondary to play man coverage on the Utah receivers. Except for two big pass plays, Graham was very pleased with the way the defensive backs played with the responsibility.

The ASU defense took a page out of the Utah defense's book. The Sun Devils decided the best way to disrupt the Utah offense was to get in its backfield. The ASU defense finished with nine tackles for loss and four sacks.

"I don't think that they thought they could protect," Graham said. "They didn't have much time. It's one, two, three and you better throw it because we were in there pretty steadily."

Conway's stellar performance continued after the opening series. The senior finished with five total tackles, one more than his career high.

Offense returns

The score was still 19-7 at the start of the fourth quarter. The ASU offense started its first drive of the fourth on its own 30-yard line with just under 15 minutes left. ASU was only a couple minutes away from losing sole possession of the Pac-12 south lead.

At this point, the offense decided to wake up.

Kelly marched the offense down the field quickly and completed a 6-play, 70-yard drive that ended in a 2-yard touchdown run by Kelly. The drive only lasted 1:39 and the Sun Devils cut the Utah lead to 19-14.

Keeping with the theme of the game, the offense wasted two more drives in the fourth and the defense silenced three Utah offensive chances before the Sun Devils scored again.

With 4:31 left in the game, the Sun Devils were down five points. The offense then drove 80-yards and finished with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Kelly to sophomore wide receiver Richard Smith to put the Sun Devils up 20-19.

Kelly said he trusted the offense to respond late in the game.

"That's what our offense does," Kelly said. "We kept fighting through adversity. Guys were coaching each other, keeping guys up. We weren't going to quit. Once we started getting rolling, started getting first downs, and other first downs, tempo, our guys are hard to stop once we get things rolling."

Sutton seals the deal

It only seemed fitting the game would come down to the ASU defense.

After the Smith touchdown catch, ASU senior cornerback Robert Nelson intercepted Wilson to give the ball back to his offense. ASU's offense could not capitalize and did not run out the clock. After failing to move the chains the Sun Devils punted.

Utah got the ball at its own 11-yard line with 1:20 left to win the game.

It looked as though Wilson was going to get his team in position to attempt a game winning field goal. After a completion and a pass interference was called on ASU senior cornerback Osahon Irabor, Wilson had moved the offense to the Utah 29-yard line.

Cue Sutton.

He read the pass, showing the time he put in studying film and grabbed the ball ending Utah's comeback hopes.

"Will Sutton [was] player of the year last year, consensus all-American," Graham said. "But since I've been here, that's the biggest play I think that he's made."


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