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October 9, 2011SALT LAKE CITY -- Visible from the press box at Rice-Eccles Stadium during Arizona State's Saturday trip to Utah, a deer casually strolled around nearby Mt. Olivet Cemetery seemingly without a care in the world.
Perhaps it knew the area's only hunting grounds were across the street, where the Utes took aim at the target sitting clearly atop the Pac-12's South's perch only to miss. Wildly.
After three years of dodging buckshot rather unsuccessfully, these No. 22 Sun Devils are an unscathed 3-0 in league play and 5-1 overall after a decisive 35-14 road win Saturday over the Utes, which dropped to 2-3 overall and 0-3 in their first Pac-12 season.
Seemingly the lone competitor in the way of an ASU trip to the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game is UCLA, which beat Washington State to improve to 2-1 in league play. The South's other eligible teams, Arizona, Colorado and Utah, are all winless in conference.
"We have an X on our chest," safety Eddie Elder said. "We're just going to have to come every week and give it our all because we know everyone's gunning for us."
Trailing 14-13 in the middle of the third quarter after redshirt freshman Alex Garoutte's second field goal of the day, Arizona State forced three turnovers in a span of seven minutes, converting with touchdowns on all three en route to the game's final score.
"The wheels came off," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Turning the ball over. That's the bottom line. Until that happens it's going to be a long road."
The turnovers, in fact, came so fast and furious -- Utah ran just one play before the first in the sequence and none before the second -- that junior ASU quarterback Brock Osweiler didn't even have time to get blood treated on his jersey before being rushed back onto the field.
"They were cleaning it one second and the next second it was, 'Hey, you've got to go,'" Osweiler said. "But that's a credit to our defense. They were staying focused, playing with a lot of intensity, creating turnovers."
Senior linebacker Shelly Lyons ripped the ball -- and all of the game's momentum -- free from Utes running back John White at the Utah 44-yard line to start the string, and five plays later, Osweiler hit senior Mike Willie for his first of two touchdowns, a 14-yard strike.
After a successful 2-point conversion and the ensuing kickoff, Utah quarterback fill in Jon Hays -- in his first career start playing in place of injured Jordan Wynn -- was intercepted by senior ASU safety Clint Floyd at the Utah 32-yard line.
The Sun Devils again took advantage of the short field in quick fashion, with junior running back Cameron Marshall reaching the end zone on a 4-yard run to double up the Utes at 28-14.
"We've been getting turnovers the last three or four games and that's what it's all about," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. "You look every year at the stats and the best teams are ahead in the turnover margin. That's what happened today. They had five and we didn't have any. Usually you win football games like that."
Utah seemed intent on getting back in the game on its next possession as it moved the ball down into scoring range, only to see Floyd cause a fumble at the ASU 29-yard line, which Lyons recovered and returned 10 yards.
From there, ASU put together an impressive 10-play, 61-yard touchdown drive that culminated with Willie's second touchdown reception of the game and effectively ended the Utes' hopes with fans streaming for the exists at the 10:39 mark of the final quarter.
Willie had perhaps his biggest career performance with seven catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns, while fellow senior Gerell Robinson also came up big with seven catches for 101 yards.
"They were playing a lot of man (coverage)," Erickson said. "[Willie] and [Robinson] got 1-on-1 coverage a lot. What they were doing is, when we ran motion they were taking [a defender] right to the motion guy, so when they do that you're manned up all over the place and that's why those guys were involved a lot more."
Perhaps due in part to an increased number of throws down the field -- and much fewer swing passes than normal this season due to Utah's defensive approach -- Osweiler didn't have as high a completion percentage as he's grown accustomed to this season, but still managed an impressive 25 of 41 attempts for 325 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
"That was our game plan," Osweiler said of the increased targets to Willie downfield. "We have tremendous wide receivers on the outside ... and we really haven't gotten the guys the football this year. They deserve their touches.
"If they want to man [Willie] up or any of our receivers, we'll take our chances."
Early on, it seemed as though ASU still might not have been quite ready for its new role as the hunted.
Utah took a 7-0 lead on a 30-yard run by White on a third and 8 play that defensive coordinator Craig Bray took responsibility for following the game.
"We got punched in the mouth because I mad a bad call," Bray said. "We got them on third down, a couple things happened, their tendencies were 100 percent pass, I called an overload pressure which left our B gap open and they ran it in the B gap (for a touchdown). If I called it like I usually do in the first series which is keep it really base, it probably wouldn't have been a touchdown, they would have tried a field goal. So I put that on me and I told them that at halftime. 'I made the call, you guys executed it and they made a good play.'"
A shanked punt by Utah gave ASU good field position to start its first scoring drive mid-first quarter, but it was a personal foul penalty on the Utes during a third down sack of Osweiler that preserved the drive, enabling his subsequent 5-yard strike to Miles, which tied the game.
ASU took a 10-7 lead Garoutte's first field goal attempt with 1:22 left in the first half, and the Utes took advantage of a soft coverage shell on their next possession to drive all the way to the ASU 16-yard line in less than a minute before Hays was intercepted by Elder -- who had a team-high nine tackles -- in the end zone.
It was the Sun Devils' first of a handful of huge defensive plays on the afternoon.
The Utes then scored a touchdown on a Hays 2-yard pass to Dallin Rogers to cap a 9-play drive to open the second half and take a 14-10 lead. It was the team's second consecutive impressive drive and appeared to give it a lot of momentum, but then one ball after another slipped away in a disastrous sequence, and the game followed closely behind.
Several hours later, when given an opportunity to promote Saturday's heavyweight bout at Oregon on ESPN, Osweiler refused to take the bait.
"Just another football game," Osweiler said casually. "We're going to be ready. Anytime you get to play in Autzen Stadium, it's a great opportunity. It's a great atmosphere up there, and we're looking forward to the challenge."
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