In the annual Ute Proud game, the No. 4 Utah Utes (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) finally got the Arizona State (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12) monkey off their backing, defeating the Sun Devils for the first time since 1976 in a rainy and windy Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah special teams, usually one of the strongest units on the team, nearly cost Utah the game. They allowed a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a 48-yard punt return by Gump Hayes that led to an ASU field goal, and had an illegal forward pass penalty thrown by Britain Covey in the end zone on a kickoff that resulted in a safety.
Utah quarterback Travis Wilson shredded the Arizona State secondary, going 26-of-36 for 297 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Arizona State managed to bottle up Utah star running back Devontae Booker for over three quarters until he took over in the fourth quarter, sealing the win with a 62-yard touchdown run. He finished the night with 21 carries for 118 yards rushing and two touchdowns. He also caught four passes for 14 yards. Senior wide receiver Kenneth Scott led Utah with 116 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown.
"I'm proud of our guys. They're a tough group of guys. Very physical. Just warriors. They were not going to be denied tonight. It was tough sledding running the ball. They have a good run defense. We couldn't get much going there. For three and three-quarters of the game we were really struggling to run the ball," said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham.
Whittingham was not happy with the special teams, saying, "Special teams were atrocious and almost cost us the game. That's not like us. We have to get that fixed. We gave up 15 points on special teams with the safety, kick return for a touchdown and punt return that set up a field goal."
Both offenses struggled to move the ball to start the game. it was Utah that got the scoring started when Wilson found tight end Harrison Handley in the end zone for a two-yard touchdown pass to take a 7-0 lead with 04:56 remaining in the first quarter. The lead was short lived however; Tim White of Arizona State returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7. After a 42-yard punt return by Arizona State, the Sun Devils extended their lead to 10-7 after a 34-yard Zane Gonzalez field goal. Utah would take a 14-10 lead after Wilson connected with Scott for an 11-yard touchdown pass. Scott also had a spectacular 42-yard one handed catch on the play before the touchdown. Utah's slim four-point lead would hold until the second half. Wilson had 220 yards passing at halftime.
"Their run defense is so tough. Last year we didn't throw as much as we would have liked. We were not going to make the same mistake twice. They crowd the box and bring everybody. They just keep coming from different locations. Essentially, they come from the same spots, just from different sides of the field. So if you pick it up and get the ball out, you can do a ton of damage and we did. We had a good night throwing the ball," said Whittingham.
Arizona State would add eight points in the third quarter, scoring on a 28-yard Gonzalez field goal. On the ensuing kickoff is when the illegal forward pass penalty that resulted in the safety occurred. ASU would add a 44-yard field goal on the drive after the safety punt.
On the play that resulted in the safety, Covey said, "I'm overwhelmed. After coming to the sidelines after that play, I think I heard just one negative thing. I appreciate that. Every victory is a team victory and we got it done."
For the first time all season, Utah trailed in the fourth quarter. It looks like it could be another game of missed opportunities against the Sun Devils. Instead, the team responded by outscoring Arizona State 20-0 in the final period. Utah would trail until Booker scampered 25 yards for the touchdown after taking the option pitch from Wilson. Utah would then add a pair of field goals from Andy Phillips from 43 and 35 yards. Utah had a 27-18 lead and would stop Arizona State on a fourth down in Utah territory. On the next drive, Booker broke off a 62-yard run for a touchdown on third down to put an exclamation point on the win. The game would end with Cory Butler-Byrd picking off Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici. The final score of 34-18 does not tell the story of how close this game was.
Despite trailing in the fourth quarter, Whittingham said the team was confident. "We were not going to be denied. We were focused and men on a mission. We were not going to be denied in that fourth quarter. That's part of the equation -- winning the fourth quarter. We did that in a big way."
The Utah defense forced two turnovers, both in the fourth quarter and did not allow the Sun Devils to score an offensive touchdown. Arizona State managed only 257 yards, their lowest total of the season, and one of only two games (the other being Texas A&M) where the Sun Devils managed under 400 total yards. Utah was especially potent against the run, allowing only 15 total rushing yards on 28 carries. Utah sacked Bercovici five times on the night.
"Our defense shut them out. I'm very proud of them. Collectively, they were the player of the game. The front four, it starts up front with them. They were outstanding. Our linebackers, the secondary, the whole defense, played well," said Whittingham.
It was a big win for Utah, giving them a two game lead on every team in the Pac-12 South, but things do not get any easier. They have to travel to Los Angeles next Saturday to take on the USC Trojans at 4:30 p.m. PT (5:30 p.m. MT).
Here is the post-game audio from Kyle Whittingham and Travis Wilson, Gionni Paul, Kenneth Scott, and Britain Covey .