Had they been able to hold that lead it would have been a masterpiece on defense. As it was, it was just a great effort. —Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — Talk about an eclipse. At the end of three quarters last Saturday, Utah’s defense had pretty much kept Arizona State’s high-powered offense in the dark. The 23rd-ranked Sun Devils had all the shine of a muddy shoe on a cloudy day. They trailed 19-7 and had just 132 yards of total offense with 10 first downs. Quarterback Taylor Kelly had been sacked five times.
All was well, at least it was until ASU scored two touchdowns in the final 13:12 to win the game by the narrowest of margins, 20-19.
“Had they been able to hold that lead it would have been a masterpiece on defense,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “As it was, it was just a great effort.”
Great may be an understatement considering the numbers. ASU came into the game averaging 46.6 points and 515.1 yards per outing, ranking second in the Pac-12 and in the top 10 nationally in both categories. Against Utah, the Sun Devils managed just 293 yards by game’s end.
ASU coach Todd Graham said “that’s the best we’ve been defended” and added that the Utes did a tremendous job.
It wasn’t quite enough, though, for Utah to achieve its main objective — a masterpiece, if you will.
“It was close. We really did almost pull off a great defensive effort,” said linebacker Jason Whittingham, who finished with a team-high 14 tackles. “I think if we would have had more than one turnover it would gone more in our favor.”
The Utes’ lone takeaway was a fumble recovery by defensive lineman LT Tuipolutu.
“We haven’t been good enough because we’re not turning the ball over. We only had one last week. If we would have had three, I think we would have won the game,” said defensive end Trevor Reilly. “So that’s really something that we’re trying to work on. It’ll help our offense out, too, if we can get them in better field position and just get the ball more often for them.”
As for this week’s opponent, Reilly is looking forward to the challenges that Oregon presents. The Ducks lead the Pac-12 in rushing offense (301.6 ypg), pass efficiency offense (170.26 rating), total offense (596.6 ypg) and scoring offense (51.7 ppg).
“It will be a big test for us,” he said. “If we can play well against them, it will really show if we’re a great defense or not.”
Despite Oregon’s advantage in speed and an abundance of skill position players that can run, Utah defensive coordinantor Kalani Sitake feels good about the matchups.
“We’ll see if our defense can handle it. I know that it’s a tough task and everybody’s kind of looking at it, but so was last week, and it’s been that way all year,” he said. “I just know that I’ve got a great group of guys to go to this game with and I have a good feeling about these guys.”
Utah’s defense leads the nation with 3.67 sacks per game, and Reilly is tied for the Pac-12 lead with three fumble recoveries. Statistically, the Utes rank fourth in the conference against the run (142.3 ypg) and sixth in total defense (382.2 ypg).
“I’ve always been proud of our guys. I’ll always be grateful for their effort and how hard they work for us as a staff. We’ve just got to find ways to finish off and get some wins,” Sitake said. “That’s not on our players. Our players are doing their job. They’re working hard. We’ve got to find a way to get an edge and to finish these games and play great defense.
“That’s what our emphasis has been all year long. I think we’ve improved in a lot of places, but we’ve just got to get the wins,” he continued. “Whatever it takes to get wins, that’s what we're trying to get done this week, and so there’s a huge urgency on my part and on our staff to try to find a way to get these wins. We’ll work hard and see what happens.”
Utah (4-5, 1-5) needs two wins in its final three games to achieve bowl eligibility. The Utes play at Washington State next week before closing out the regular season at home against Colorado on Nov. 30.
“When you have guys that just work hard — our guys get better every week — you can do a lot of good things,” Sitake said. “So it’s a huge credit to our players, and I’m just grateful that I have these players to work with.”