The last time the Utah Utes visited Sun Devil Stadium, they proved they belonged among college football’s elite.
Saturday’s return trip was another story entirely. Same stage, but what a different scene.
Launching their second Pac-12 season with a 37-7 loss to Arizona State, the Utes raised all kinds of questions about the program’s ability to compete in this conference in 2012.
Eight seasons removed from their Fiesta Bowl rout of Pittsburgh, the Utes were overwhelmed by ASU’s speed, talent and creativity. The Sun Devils produced four touchdowns and a field goal in their first five possessions, exposing the Utes’ proud defense to a stunning degree with 512 total yards (to Utah’s 209).
Afterward, the Utes trotted to the northwest corner of the stadium and halfheartedly raised their black helmets, joining a ribbon of red-clad fans in the school song. That was a stark contrast to the Fiesta Bowl celebration with about 50,000 followers.
Those new helmets will become part of Ute infamy, along with the camouflage jerseys worn in a 47-7 disaster against Texas Christian in 2010.
Here in the Valley of the Sun, the Utes mostly blamed themselves for this turn of events, with safety Brian Blechen citing mistakes that “built a snowball we couldn’t stop.”
The outcome was disturbing, in multiple ways, beginning with a basic belief: Utah is supposed to be better than this, right?
“Didn’t see this coming,” coach Kyle Whittingham said.
The Utes are “not as deficient and overmatched” as ASU made them appear, Whittingham insisted.
Yet if this game is any guide, a season that theoretically will give us a true gauge of Utah’s Pac-12 status — just because of quarterback Jon Hays’ being better prepared to play at this level — is looking like a potential disaster.
At this point, a 4-5 league record and bowl eligibility (6-6 overall) would be an achievement.
If a defense that everybody figured would keep Utah in every Pac-12 game could look this bad, what happens now? The Utes’ October schedule includes a visit from USC and trips to UCLA and Oregon State, bringing the prospect of another 0-4 conference start into play with a schedule Whittingham described as “relentless and brutal.”
Coming into this game, the Utes seemingly were above anything resembling a repeat of 2011. But not much of redeeming value emerged Saturday, that’s for sure. Utah appeared slow defensively and the offensive line struggled to protect Hays and open holes.
Generally, the Utes regressed to the depths of their worst moments of last season — including the embarrassing 34-10 loss to Cal.
In taking a 31-7 lead, Arizona State racked up 347 offensive yards in the first half with Taylor Kelly’s 13 completions accounting for 259 yards. Those numbers seemed almost unimaginable, especially with Blechen back from his three-game suspension to anchor the secondary.
Utah’s offensive tone was set in the wrong way, after a promising start that featured Hays’ 36-yard completion to Kenneth Scott. On a fourth-and 3 play from the ASU 33-yard line, Hays was sacked. The next thing anybody knew, the Sun Devils were storming ahead 21-0.
Coach Todd Graham’s Pittsburgh offense struggled mightily against Utah last season, but the Sun Devils’ personnel made him and his staff look like geniuses against Whittingham and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. “Lot of breakdowns,” Whittingham said.
A couple of years after Utah’s 2005 Fiesta Bowl triumph, the NCAA officially added a victory to Whittingham’s record (one of his 68 wins), citing his role as co-head coach with Urban Meyer. In this case, Whittingham’s 27th career defeat was awarded instantly.