With USC losing to Stanford last week and Oregon State upsetting UCLA earlier Saturday, the Utah Utes were in prime position to take control of the Pac-12 South with a win over Arizona State.
Instead, Utah (2-2, 0-1) was tossed onto the pile of losers almost like a Pac-12 afterthought by the Sun Devils (3-1, 0-1), who looked like the real South contender.
Last year when these teams met, ASU took advantage of three straight Utah turnovers to turn a close game into a 35-14 win. The Sun Devils didn't need any such help on Saturday as they dominated the Utes on both sides of the ball and enjoyed a 31-7 halftime lead, outgaining the Utes 347 yards to 152.
ASU finished the game with 512 yards to Utah's 209 total.
That the Utes had trouble moving the ball against ASU wasn't much of a surprise, given Utah's ineffective run game this season, thanks in part to John White's ankle injury, and ASU's solid passing defense.
The eye-opener of the night was the way in which ASU was able to chew up huge chunks of turf against Utah's defense.
Defensive end Joe Kruger missed the game with a foot injury and safety Eric Rowe missed his second straight game with a hamstring strain, but their absences were little excuse for the Utes, who allowed the Sun Devils to score on their first three drives in seven plays or less.
"We couldn't stop the outside runners or passes," defensive lineman Dave Kruger said. "We have no one to blame or point fingers at one person or another. We just couldn't stop them outside, and it hurt us bad."
By the end of the first quarter, the Utes were down 21-0 and looking like a team desperate to avoid an embarrassing rout, much less showing any potency that would make it a South title leader.
ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly was 19-for-26 for 326 yards and three touchdowns.
Whittingham called it the worst first half of defense he can remember.
"I wish I knew why," he said. "Their schemes were outstanding, and they deserve all the credit in the world. They have playmakers and they utilized them to a T."
The schedule doesn't get any easier, as USC visits Oct. 4, followed by road games at UCLA and Oregon State.
The only good news for the Utes is that they have a few extra days to solve their issues thanks to a bye week.
The bad news is there are plenty of deficiencies to keep them busy.
"I'm worried about everything," Whittingham said. "The running backs, the offensive line, the quarterbacks, the wideouts. I'm worried about everything but Star Lotulelei."
The most pressing concern for the Utes going forward is the run game.
What was expected to be a strength this year has turned into a liability.
White started the game for the Utes but the running back struggled, gaining just 17 yards on eight carries. A fumble by White midway through the first quarter was recovered on Utah's 34-yard line, setting up ASU's third scoring drive.
The lone bright spot in the half was running back Kelvin York, a junior college transfer who until Saturday has struggled to live up to his billing.
Replacing White in the second quarter, York bulldozed his way through the Sun Devils' defense to key the Utes' second-quarter scoring drive.
He was responsible for 70 of Utah's 79 rushing yards in the first half.
But even he was rendered ineffective in the second half after ASU made some adjustments in the middle. The Utes finished with 92 rushing yards to ASU's 140.
A lack of a run presence left quarterback Jon Hays with the task of moving the offense through the air against one of the league's best passing defenses.
As improved as he might be this year, Hays could do little to rally the Utes. While he connected early with Kenneth Scott on a 36-yard pass, Hays didn't have the time he needed to stand in the pocket and let the offense develop.
Hays was sacked three times in the first half and hurried several other times.
Visibly shaken at times, Hays managed to stay in the game. Unfortunately for the Utes, they were never in the game as a team.
"We have to go in and as players bond together and rededicate ourselves to the season," Hays said. "It's gut-check time."
Storylines Utes lose Pac-12 opener
IN SHORT • The Utes lost to the Sun Devils for the ninth straight time, with ASU scoring on its first five possessions.
KEY STAT • ASU had 512 yards of total offense, the most given up by a Utah team since allowing Boise State 543 in the 2010 Las Vegas Bowl loss.
KEY MOMENT • ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly completed passes of 16, 12 and 38 yards in ASU's first scoring drive.