TEMPE, Ariz. — On a toasty night in the desert, No. 13 Utah took care of business, as expected, in its Pac-12 opener against a reeling Arizona State team in its first game with an interim head coach calling the shots.
While the Utes demolished ASU with a 34-13 win Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium, they may have suffered a major personnel loss with long-lasting implications.
One of their biggest offensive weapons, star tight end Brant Kuithe, injured his knee on the final play of the first quarter after catching a pass and getting tackled near the Utah sideline.
Kuithe did not return to the game and was seen on crutches.
“Brant Kuithe is probably the big negative in the game. We’ll find out more tomorrow but it doesn’t look good,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’ll have a report on Monday whether or not it’s season-ending. I just feel horrible for the kid. He’s such a great teammate. He’s a leader and he’s a captain. He came back for another year to be with his team and help us win. So we hope for the best. It’s not definitive but, like I said, it doesn’t look good.”
Fellow tight end Dalton Kincaid, who caught four passes for 66 yards and two touchdowns against ASU, said of Kuithe’s injury: “That’s definitely a brutal loss. It hurts a lot.”
Besides that, it was a good night overall for the Utes, and they again showed why they are the favorites to capture another Pac-12 championship.
Utah rolled up 465 yards of offense and held the Sun Devils to six rushing yards.
“The defense was lights-out,” Whittingham said. “Our run defense was outstanding.”
Quarterback Cam Rising completed 19 of 29 passes for 260 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Running back Tavion Thomas, who didn’t enter the game until the second half, led the team in rushing with 60 yards on 11 carries. Freshman Jaylon Glover had 13 rushes for 48 yards and Ja’Quinden Jackson added 31 rushing yards on nine attempts, and scored a touchdown.
Wide receiver Devaughn Vele caught six passes for 63 yards and tight end Thomas Yassmin had one catch for 72 yards.
All week, Utah’s offense spent a considerable amount of practice time trying to figure out how to get off to a faster start.
But nothing seemed to change on the Utes’ opening series as they ran five plays and then punted. In their previous two games, Utah scored a total of seven points in the first quarter. They doubled that production in the opening quarter Saturday.
After Utah’s defense sacked ASU quarterback Emory Jones twice for minus-17 yards and forced a punt, the offense kicked into gear.
Two plays into the Utes’ next possession, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig dug into his bag of tricks, dialing up a flea-flicker as Rising connected with Kincaid for a 29-yard touchdown pass to give Utah a 7-0 lead.
On the Utes’ next series, they ran 14 plays, marched 70 yards and took 6:15 off the clock, culminating with a six-yard touchdown pass from Rising to Kincaid. Rising threaded the needle between two Sun Devil defenders to find Kincaid — his second TD of the night.
“He’s a guy that’s just a playmaker,” Rising said of Kincaid. “Anytime you put it in his vicinity, he’s going to come up with it more times than not.”
By the end of the first quarter, Utah led 14-0. The Utes had 137 yards of offense, compared to minus-5 yards for ASU.
“It was definitely a big emphasis this week,” Kincaid said of starting fast. “It was on our minds a lot. We fed off the defensive energy, too.”
Early in the second quarter, Ute cornerback Clark Phillips III picked off Jones in ASU territory. Utah capitalized with a 23-yard field goal by Jordan Noyes to make it 17-0.
A 58-yard kickoff return by the Sun Devils set ASU up in good field position and a 30-yard field goal to get on the board.
After the Utes added another touchdown with 44 seconds remaining — Jackson scored on a two-yard run, his first TD of the season.
But Arizona State, thanks to another long kickoff return, kicked a 47-yard field goal as time expired to cut the halftime deficit to 24-6.
“Had we not had two miscues in the kickoff coverage and given them good field position twice, they would have had less points scored,” Whittingham said.
Early in the third quarter, Rising threw an interception but Utah didn’t give up any points as a result.
However, with 11:07 left in the third quarter, Utah averted a bad situation. Safety Cole Bishop sacked Jones for an 11-yard loss but was whistled for targeting. After a review, the referees waved off the targeting penalty.
Had the targeting call been confirmed, Bishop would have been ejected from the remainder of Saturday’s game and would have missed the first half of next week’s home game against Oregon State.
Whittingham did not think Bishop should have been penalized for targeting.
“He turned his head … It was good to see the refs interpret it that way. To me, that’s not the spirit of the rule,” he said. “Yeah, the helmets touched … a lot of times, the defender can’t help it when the quarterback ducks at the last second. You have to look at the intent. There was no intent for Cole to use his helmet as a weapon.”
“I was more concerned about next week. We were already up by a good bit,” Bishop said. “Obviously, I wanted to finish this game but I was worried about being suspended for the first half of the Oregon State game. But luckily, they didn’t call me for it.”
Thomas entered the game in the third quarter and immediately made an impact. But it was Jaylen Dixon that scored on that drive for the Utes on an 11-yard run with 6:16 left in the third period, staking Utah to a 31-6 advantage.
“The run game was much more efficient in the second half,” Whittingham said. “We came out with the purpose and intent to do that.”
Later in the quarter, Rising completed a 72-yard pass to Yassmin. But the Utes failed to convert that drive into points as they were stopped on fourth-and-2 from the ASU 2-yard line.
In the fourth quarter, Utah settled for a field goal as another drive stalled inside the ASU 5-yard line.
“We sputtered a little bit in the red zone at times,” Whittingham said. “We’re a work in progress in that respect.”
With 7:40 remaining, Bishop picked off Jones near the goal line to keep the Sun Devils out of the end zone.
ASU finally scored a touchdown with 2:06 remaining in the game.
Utah hosts Oregon State Saturday at noon.