Utes lose their grip on Pac-12 South as QB Huntley is injured in 38-20 loss to Arizona State

Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) in the first half during an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Nov 3, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Tempe, Ariz. • The scoreboard told the story of the Pac-12 South’s altered landscape and the empty sleeve of Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley’s jacket said even more about the state of the Utes’ season Saturday afternoon.

Huntley walked glumly down the ramp toward the locker room with a collarbone injury, as Ute athletic director Mark Harlan tried to encourage him after a day that radically changed the outlook of a remarkable season in the making.

Even if there were bound to be more bumps in No. 16 Utah’s road to the program’s first division championship, nobody would have forecasted this change of course. The Utes’ 38-20 loss to Arizona State at Sun Devil Stadium left absolutely no doubt that this program is under some kind of November curse.

Troubling losses have spoiled Novembers in Utah’s recent past with the Rose Bowl in view, but Saturday’s sequence of events took the trend to another level. Not only do the Utes need help from one of Arizona State’s remaining opponents to earn a berth in the Pac-12 championship game, but they’ll have enough troubles of their own against Oregon and Colorado without Huntley. He’s not their best player, but he’s their most indispensable player, and he’s “most likely done for the season,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said.

Huntley’s absence makes redshirt freshman Jason Shelley the No. 1 quarterback. Shelley’s first drive Saturday ended with a field goal that cut ASU’s lead to 21-20 late in the third quarter, but the Utes crumbled both offensively and defensively after that point.

The Sun Devils’ 536-yard production suggests they would have won this game, even with Huntley remaining healthy. The question now becomes how much of this season the Utes can salvage. The loss means Utah (6-3, 4-3 Pac-12) is tied with Arizona for first place in the Pac-12 South, pending USC’s outcome at Oregon State. ASU (5-4, 3-3) is a half-game behind the Utes, owning the tiebreaker between the teams.

This season likely will be remembered for the Utes’ seemingly perfect position going into November, an opportunity now filed under “Lost.” Huntley’s absence skews any judgment of Utah’s future, that’s for sure.

As for Saturday’s episode, Whittingham was disappointed with a defensive effort he labeled “unusual, unlikely, uncharacteristic.”

ASU’s big plays by quarterback Manny Wilkins and receiver N’Keal Harry didn’t bother him as much as Eno Benjamin’s 175 rushing yards on 27 carries. Once a Ute recruiting target, Benjamin topped the 128 yards (on 18 attempts) of Utah’s Zack Moss, whose job will become considerably more demanding without Huntley’s passing ability.

Utah showed resilience Saturday, scoring 17 straight points after falling behind 14-0. Yet even before Huntley’s injury, there signs that this was just not the Utes’ day — partly, their own doing.

Already trailing 7-0 after a targeting penalty extended ASU’s first drive, the Utes got a bad break on their first possession. Huntley escaped the rush and launched a long pass that bounced off receiver Jaylen Dixon’s chest and into the arms of ASU’s Aashari Crosswell at the goal line. His return to midfield started the Sun Devils toward another touchdown, making it 14-0.

After the Utes later went ahead 17-14 on Huntley’s 5-yard pass to Samson Nacua, the Sun Devils answered quickly with Harry’s second TD catch of the game to make it 21-17 at halftime.

If the Utes had any hopes after cutting the lead to 21-20, with Moss running well and Shelley showing poise on the drive to a field goal, they were doused immediately. Harry’s third TD reception, a 61-yarder, preceded Shelley’s two three-and-out sequences and the Sun Devils just kept coming.

The Utes again were left to regroup, as they did successfully in October, following a discouraging September. The trouble is, this is November.