Sun Devils Down Utah State 26-16

Sept 14, 2003

By Nate Policar
ASU Sports Information

Looking to build on their effort in the previous week, the Sun Devils came into their second game aiming to prove something to their critics. Led by defensive linemen Jimmy Verdon and Brian Montesanto, who each turned in a pair of sacks, Arizona State (2-0) forced the Utah State Aggies (0-3) into six straight punts from their own territory in the first half, en route to a 26-16 victory at Sun Devil Stadium.

The Sun Devils got out to a quick lead, and were jumpstarted when junior quarterback Andrew Walter found senior receiver Skyler Fulton downfield for a 20-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage. Two plays later, the two hooked up again as Fulton beat his defender and took it 44 yards for the touchdown, giving the Devils an early 6-0 lead. ASU's defense set the tone early, forcing Utah State to punt the ball in just 55 seconds and then following that stand with another impressive three-and-out, leaving the Aggies with -30 yards on a three-play drive.

Slowed by three fumbles, the Sun Devil offense got back on track when Walter again found Fulton, this time for 23 yards, setting up a one-yard touchdown run by redshirt freshman tailback Randy Hill to put ASU on top 13-0.

The story in the first half, though, was the ASU defense. It took the Aggies over 20 minutes to cross midfield, not moving past the 50-yard line until a 10-yard pass from Utah State junior quarterback Travis Cox to receiver Chris Cooley midway through the second quarter. With momentum on their side, the Aggies kept moving, driving 58 yards in 10 plays before scoring on a 6-yard run by Cooley to trim the lead to 13-7. Holding the momentum, Utah State forced the Sun Devils into a quick three-and-out, and the Aggies received a punt deep in their own territory.

Once again, the ASU defense answered the call. With Cox throwing on a third and long, ASU junior safety Riccardo Stewart stepped in front of the pass and picked it off, returning it 18 yards for the score--the first touchdown of his collegiate career--and sending ASU to the locker room with a 19-7 halftime lead.

'I've been trying to get a touchdown for a long time,' said Stewart, who finished the game with a game-high 10 tackles and one sack for a 10-yard loss. 'It was a great feeling. Utah State ran what we thought they were going to run. They performed a lot of shifts and formations to try and confuse us and ran on us a lot, but overall, our defense did a great job.'

Included in that great job was a career-best nine tackles from defensive lineman Jimmy Verdon, who also added two sacks for a loss of 10 yards. His counterpart on the ASU line, Brian Montesanto, also added two sacks for a loss of 22 yards.

Energized by the halftime break, senior safety Brett Hudson began the second half for the Devils by intercepting a Travis Cox pass on the first play and returning it 28 yards to the Utah State seven-yard line. With great field position, the Devils looked poised to strike the fatal blow, but their offense was unable to convert, and ASU surrendered the ball on downs on the Aggie 1-yard line. Encouraged, Cox led the Aggies 80 yards downfield before they settled for a 36-yard field goal from kicker Ben Chaet, to pull within striking distance once more at 19-10.

Yet again, the Sun Devils responded. With the third-quarter clock waning, sophomore tailback Hakim Hill entered the game for the Sun Devils and led them on a 75-yard charge toward the endzone, with 34 of those yards gained on the ground by Hill. From the Utah State 15-yard line, Andrew Walter found Fulton open for a touchdown, giving the Devils a 26-10 lead and Fulton his second TD reception of the game. Fulton finished his career-best outing with eight receptions for 172 yards and two touchdowns. Walter finished the game on 20-for-37 passing for 277 yards and two touchdowns.

'Andrew knows what I can do,' Fulton said. 'He goes through his reads and if I'm open, he will throw the ball in my direction. We have depth at receiver. Every week it can be anybody that will step up. That is a tribute to all of the receivers.'

Refusing to say die, the Aggies countered with an eight-play, 75-yard drive in which Cox had three completions for 10 or more yards, including a 31-yard pass to tailback David Fiefia. The Aggies put the ball in the end zone for a touchdown on a pass to Fiefia but failed to convert the two-point conversion, cutting the lead 26-16. ASU would try their best to eat up the remaining game clock, but after trading possessions, Utah State got the ball back on their 20-yard line with two minutes remaining in the game.

Cox took over, passing for 50 yards and rushing for 16 yards, to move Utah State to the ASU 30-yard line. With 30 seconds remaining, it would be up to the ASU defense to thwart remaining hopes of an Aggies' comeback. Cox completed a pass to receiver Barry Tolli, who then fumbled after being hit by Riccardo Stewart. Scooping up the ball near the goal line, Utah State offensive lineman Tony Pennyman fell on the ball for an apparent USU touchdown. However, flags were down in the backfield for an offensive holding call, moving the ball back to the ASU 40-yard line and sealing the victory for the Sun Devils.

'We have a lot of things we can build on,' Arizona State head coach Dirk Koetter said. 'I thought we did a good job of getting pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush today. Also, we held four very good football players out of this game. We've been saying that this is the deepest team we've ever had and that depth was put to the test tonight.'

SUN DEVIL GAME NOTES: With the victory, head coach Dirk Koetter surpassed the .500 mark for his career at Arizona State, improving to 14-13 (.519)... The Sun Devils sacked Utah State quarterback Travis Cox a total of seven times... Stewart's interception return marked the second straight game in which the Sun Devils have returned an interception for a touchdown, following junior cornerback R.J. Oliver's 100-yard return the previous week, accomplishing this feat for the first time since the 1995 season... Walter's pair of touchdown passes moved him into a three-way tie for 40th on the Pac-10's career touchdown list with 37. He is tied with USC's Paul McDonald and Oregon's Dan Fouts...ASU's touchdown 1:07 into the game was just the sixth time in the last 16 games that the Sun Devils scored first.

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