SALT LAKE CITY — Wham. Bam. Slam. Thud.
Utah's introduction into the Pac-12 continued its rocky road Saturday afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Three interceptions and two lost fumbles contributed to a 35-14 loss to 22nd-ranked Arizona State, dropping the Utes to 0-3 in their new conference and all but dashing any hope they had of reaching the Pac-12's inaugural championship game.
"We'll start winning games when we stop turning the ball over. That's the bottom line," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "Until that happens, it's going to be a long road. That's our biggest issue right now."
The latest setback, he noted, was unfortunately very similar to last week's 31-14 loss to Washington. The Utes lost three fumbles and threw two interceptions in that game.
"We've got to quit turning the football over," Whittingham said. "And we've got to start finding ways to win."
A team meeting preceded the postgame press conference.
Whittingham said the general theme of it was that the Utes have got to stick together, do things smarter and hang tough.
"Because it doesn't get any easier," he explained. "We've got a lot of football left."
The Utes take a 2-3 mark into a two-game stretch featuring road games at Pittsburgh and California.
"We're going to look at it as a new season — get bowl eligible," Utah quarterback Jon Hays said after making his first career start in place of the injured Jordan Wynn. "We can win the rest of our games."
The Utes, he continued, are looking to wipe the slate clean.
It'll take a lot of scrubbing, however, to put the end of this one behind them.
The pivotal second half started off well for the Utes. They opened the third quarter with a nine-play, 79-yard scoring drive that culminated with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Hays to tight end Dallin Rogers. Coleman Petersen added the PAT to give Utah a 14-10 advantage.
"We did have momentum there for a while," Whittingham said.
It proved to be short-lived, however.
Arizona State began a game-ending run of 25 unanswered points with a 35-yard field goal by Alex Garoutte on the ensuing possession.
Then came a barrage of Utah turnovers. Two fumbles served as bookends for an interception on the Utes' next three drives. Arizona State capitalized on the miscues with touchdowns each time to put the game out of reach.
"You look every year at the stats and the best teams are ahead in the turnover margin," said Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson. "That's what happened today. They had five and we didn't have any. Usually you win football games like that."
Leading 14-13, the Utes turned the ball over on their first play after the Sun Devils closed the gap. Defensive end Greg Smith recovered a fumble by running back John White on the Utah 44.
It took Arizona State only five plays to take the lead, scoring on a 14-yard touchdown toss from Brock Osweiler to Mike Willie. The Sun Devils added a two-point conversion to make it 21-14.
The Utes' next offensive series also consisted of just one play when Hays was intercepted by safety Clint Floyd on the Utah 32. Running back Cameron Marshall capped a three-play sequence with a 4-yard touchdown run to increase the Sun Devils' lead to 14 points before the third quarter was complete.
More of the same followed early in the fourth.
A fumble by Reggie Dunn was retrieved by Arizona State linebacker Shelly Lyons on the Sun Devils' 39-yard line. In keeping with the destructive theme for Utah, the Arizona State offense cashed in on the turnover. A 12-yard scoring strike from Osweiler to Willie was followed by a PAT from Garoutte that capped all scoring in the contest.
"We came out with some resolve and scored on that first drive," Whittingham said. "Then when you start turning the ball over, most games will get away from you."
Utah trailed 10-7 at halftime after a late drive ended with an interception in the end zone. Arizona State safety Eddie Elder picked off a Hays pass intended for Rogers with 28 seconds remaining to wipe out a quick and effective march downfield by the Utes.
The 54-second series began on the Utah 20 with a 7-yard run by Hays. An incomplete pass followed before the junior connected on consecutive throws to Reggie Dunn (11 yards), DeVonte Christopher (13 yards) and Luke Matthews (21 yards). Hays then added a 12-yard run to put Utah on the Arizona State 16.
That's where the promising drive stalled. Three plays later, the Utes turned the ball over.
Arizona State then ran the clock out to end an opening half that was almost even statistically.
The Sun Devils had 188 yards of total offense and 11 first downs at the break, while the Utes finished with 181 and 10.
Utah jumped out to a 7-0 lead with 10:01 remaining in the first quarter. A 30-yard touchdown run by John White capped a five-play drive by the Utes.
An exchange of punts followed before Arizona State evened the score on 5-yard touchdown pass from Osweiler to Jamal Miles. A personal foul penalty kept the drive alive when Osweiler was sacked on third-and-8 near midfield, moving the ball well into Utah territory.
Arizona State broke the 7-7 tie in the second quarter on a 27-yard field goal by Garoutte with 1:22 remaining.