With conference play officially getting underway for the Pac-12 on Saturday, ASU shifted their attention to Utah, a stout, defensive-minded team many expect to contend for the South division championship this year. Instead it was the Sun Devils who played like a division favorite, attacking the Utes early and often on both sides of the ball as they ran away with their first conference win of the year.
"That was a good football team today and we totally dominated them," said Coach Graham afterwards. "I'm really proud of our players. I've said it before, good players win games. I'm really proud of our players and the way they executed. Our mission was to be 1-0 and we did that in dominating fashion."
The Sun Devil defense set the tone early, responding to the challenges set forth by the coaching staff this week to match Utah's intensity on the field. Arizona State limited the Utes to just 209 yards of offense while forcing three turnovers, constantly confusing the Utah offense with a variety of schemes and packages throughout the night.
"I’m really proud of our players," reiterated Graham. "They came out ready to play. I challenged them to physically get after [Utah]. Everybody talks so much about defense; let’s let them talk about our defense. Our guys did this. They [Utah] have a really good football team, but we really dominated them. They came after it all the way around. I’m proud of our staff, proud of our players."
Leading the attack on defense was junior defensive tackle Will Sutton, who registered just four tackles and 0.5 sacks, but whose presence was felt all over the field as he seemingly had a hand in every play the defense made.
"He's the best d-lineman in the country in my opinion," gushed Graham. "A guy that has really started to buy in to the things we’re talking about. He is so talented and explosive. I have not coached a guy better than him physically. He’s a smart guy, and we’re starting to tap into that."
"These guys are communicating to me, and I tell them they can call things better than we can," he added. "He’s smart, poised, dynamic, explosive, and he’s got a chance to be the best in the country, I really believe that."
Sutton wasn't alone though on Saturday, as the defense was admittedly out to make a statement for themselves. Senior linebacker Brandon Magee contributed with ten tackles while forcing a fumble. Keelan Johnson had a second half interception, stunting any momentum the Utes were hoping to build. And junior college transfer Chris Young, who has quietly been surpassing everyone's expectations so far through the first month of the season, had six solo tackles while also forcing a fumble that was recovered by Carl Bradford.
"I've never had anybody fit it any better," said Graham on how well Young has performed within the defense so far this season. "I love designing things for him. I love getting him around the ball. When I recruited him I knew he was special. He has a knack for pressure; he has a knack for timing it up. He's special. I've had some good ones, but I don't know if I've had any as good as him."
"These guys will tell you it's been a strain defensively. I'm pretty hard on them. Coach Randolph is pretty hard on them. And it's paid off because we're starting to get calloused; we're starting to get tough. And that's good, because we're talented."
Not to be outdone, the Sun Devils offense returned to their early season form as they attacked the vaunted Utah defense from The Opening drive en route to 21 first quarter points. Taylor Kelly completed 19-26 pass attempts for 326 yards and three touchdowns.
Kelly was aided by the much improved play of the wide receivers on Saturday as nine different players hauled in receptions, making the offense more dynamic and balanced. Rashad Ross had a career high five catches for 87 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown to start the first half scoring spree for the Sun Devils.
Chris Coyle continues to be a go-to threat for Arizona State as he caught five balls for 62 yards. Overall, the group limited their drop passes and was able to sustain a number of drives in the opening half to wear out the Utah defense while cruising to the win.
"That’s the way the offense works," said Graham on the amount of players who had touches on Saturday. "We had a lot of teachable moments from Taylor [Kelly] and Mike [Eubank]. You have to take what the defense gives you. They were a good defense and they would take away some things, so we would go to other people. We have a lot of really quality players. The bottom line is winning. I don’t care about anything else but winning, and that’s what we have to do to win."
The Sun Devils physically wore out the Utes in the second half behind the strong play of the offensive line and the rushing attack. Freshman D.J. Foster led the way on the ground with 70 yards on just 10 carries. The Sun Devils racked up 140 yards on the ground, gashing the Utah defense as the Sun Devil offensive line repeatedly opened up holes in the second half.
"I thought our offensive line did a good job, we just have to eliminate the procedure penalties," commented Graham. "I don’t know when or where that came from or why that’s happening, but I’m seeing some things that we have to make sure we don’t abandon about who we are. Those little things, in a close game, are going to beat you. Never should we have eight penalties. But I’ll take it with a great win like that. I’m really proud of our players, and I’m proud of how these guys are buying into what we’re doing. Good players win games and that’s what happened tonight."
"We've got a good team. We've just to continue to play and be consistent. And then it's our job to put them in position to have a chance to win. I'll tell you one thing; there hasn't been one game where these guys haven't given me everything they have. There hasn't been one game where they've done something to embarrass me or this program. They've represented our school with character and class and toughness, and I'm proud to be representing them."
The Sun Devils will now get set for another road test as the team travels to the Bay area next weekend to play California. The Bears, coming off consecutive losses, have had the ASU's number in recent years, but serve as a good test for the Sun Devils as they hope to atone for the mistakes they made last week on the road.
"We’re already thinking about Cal," said Graham. "We have nine steps, and we have step one behind us, so now we go to step two. We don’t worry about anything else but that. It’s Pac-12, and you have to bring it every single week. We have a lot of things we can do better than we did tonight. I like this team, and we have to find a way to go 2-0."