Everyone who projected Utah as the only unbeaten team at this point in Pac-12 play after it had started 1-2 through its nonconference schedule, please stand up.
Almost exactly a month ago, Utah fell in triple overtime to San Diego State as part of back-to-back losses. A lot of things have happened since then, but here we are in mid-October and, amazingly, the Utes have won three straight games — and they’re in first place in the Pac-12 South.
They’re also the only Pac-12 team without a setback in conference play after knocking off No. 18 Arizona State 35-21 Saturday night at raucous Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Who knows where Utah can go from here.
“We have everything we want right there in front of us,” said Utah quarterback Cam Rising. “We’ve just got to take it.”
The Sun Devils also entered the weekend unbeaten in Pac-12 action. Not anymore. Utah improved to 4-2 overall and 3-0 in the Pac-12. ASU fell to 5-2 and 3-1.
Like last week at USC, Utah scored 28 unanswered points — this time, on four straight possessions — against Arizona State. The Utes trailed 21-7 at halftime and exploded in the final two quarters while ASU imploded.
“We rallied together at halftime. The guys believed,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “They were not going to be denied … In the first half, we didn’t run as effectively as we needed to. In the second half, it was outstanding. Defensively, we stiffened up and started taking things away.”
Utah’s defense held the Sun Devils and dynamic quarterback Jayden Daniels to 97 total yards in the second half. It was fitting that on the final three plays of the game, Daniels was sacked three consecutive times, twice by linebacker Devin Lloyd.
“We pride ourselves on finishing. That’s a staple of this program,” Lloyd said. “We just banded together the entire second half.”
In the first half, Rising was 8 of 18 for 107 yards with two interceptions. In the second half, he completed 13 of 15 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns. For the game, he also ran six times for 59 yards and a TD.
“We have a lot of faith in Cam Rising,” Whittingham said. “He’s a great leader for us.”
So what happened at halftime that changed the complexion of the game?
”We just came together in the locker room. We knew what we needed to do. It’s not something that we’re running from. We’ve got to attack this thing,” Rising said. “We talked about it, and the defense did a great job and put us in positions to continue to score.”
Rising emphasized that the defense made it possible for the Utes to complete the comeback.
“I have all the confidence in the world in those defensive players … They are some bad men out there,” he said. “I don’t like going against them in practice. I’m glad I was going against the Sun Devils rather than these guys tonight, for sure.”
Rising certainly had a lot of help on the offensive side of the ball. Tavion Thomas rushed 20 times for 84 yards and a touchdown while T.J. Pledger picked up 49 yards on seven carries and also scored a TD. As a team, the Utes rushed for 208 yards.
Dalton Kincaid had four receptions for 44 yards; Cole Fotheringham recorded four receptions for 31 yards; Devaughn Vele snatched three passes for 57 yards; Theo Howard had three catches for 41 yards; and Brant Kuithe finished with three receptions for 36 yards and a pair of TDs.
“It was awesome,” Kuithe said of his team’s performance. “In the first half, we started off slow, but the defense held it down and the offense got the spark we needed. Twenty-eight unanswered points? That’s a good game.”
Both teams marched 75 yards and scored on their opening possessions. ASU capped its first drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass from Daniels to Jaylin Conyers. For Utah, Rising completed a 23-yard pass to Vele and a 20-yard pass to Kincaid. Rising scrambled into the end zone to tie the game at 7-apiece.
Early in the second quarter, the two teams traded turnovers. A fumble recovered by Utah’s Jonah Elliss was offset by an interception by ASU’s Darien Butler.
Daniels led the Sun Devils on a go-ahead scoring drive, highlighted by a 59-yard pass to LV Bunkley-Shelton, and Daniels ended up scoring on a 2-yard keeper to make it 14-7 for ASU.
The Sun Devils added to their lead when Daniels threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Curtis Hodges to lift them to a 21-7 advantage.
The Utes drove deep into ASU territory on their final possession of the half but Rising threw an interception in the waning seconds, ending Utah’s scoring threat.
Utah found itself down by two touchdowns at intermission, but the Utes didn’t panic.
The momentum swing “all started with the first drive of the second half,” Whittingham said.
Utah made a statement, and kept itself in the game, early in the third quarter with a nine-play, 75-yard drive that took 4:39 off the clock. Thomas scored on a 7-yard touchdown run to cut the Utes’ deficit to 21-14 with 10:21 left in the period.
Utah tied the game a few minutes later when Rising threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Kuithe. With 6:20 left in the third, the Utes and Sun Devils were tied 21-21.
On that key drive, Utah was at the ASU 37-yard line, facing 4th and 2. Whittingham considered attempting what would have been a 55-yard field goal, but then he decided to trust the offense.
“We didn’t want to give up that field position,” he said. “The percentages favored converting on that play.”
And the Utes converted as Rising completed a 14-yard pass to Howard.
“The defense was playing so good if we didn’t get it ... but we did,” Rising said. “I think it was a great call by (offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig).”
On those two third-quarter touchdowns, Rising was 5 of 5 for 67 yards.
Later, ASU looked as though it was about to retake the lead, but Utah’s Hauati Pututau recorded a 9-yard sack on Daniels and the drive ended when the Sun Devils missed a 51-yard field goal attempt.
The Utes didn’t let off the gas pedal. They seized their first lead of the night — 28-21— early in the fourth quarter when Rising found Kuithe again for a 7-yard TD pass. Utah added another score on a 7-yard TD run by Pledger with 2:39 remaining.
The Utah defense closed it out from there, and the Utes ended the late night all alone in first place in the Pac-12 South.
“There’s a lot of football left,” Whittingham said. “Where we are right now is a great spot.”
Utah visits Oregon State next Saturday.