TUCSON, Arizona — A week before a massive showdown at home against No. 3 Oregon, not many people had this scenario in mind for a Utah team that controls the Pac-12 South, had won five of its previous six games and checked in at No. 24 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings.
A week after lowly Arizona snapped its nation-leading 20-game losing streak against Cal, the Wildcats refused to roll over for the Utes, who entered the game as heavy 24-point favorites.
Few expected Utah, which had won its previous two games by a 96-31 margin, to be engaged in a dogfight against the ‘Cats.
But that’s exactly what played out on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon at Arizona Stadium on Senior Day.
In the end, despite making a bunch of mistakes that included giving up another punt block for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the Utes sealed a hard-fought victory with a final scoring drive that went 75 yards, lasted 15 plays and consumed 8:24 off the clock.
And Utah left Tucson with what could be described as a character-building 38-29 win.
“A lot of credit to the University of Arizona. That’s a hard-playing team. They have athletes. They had a nice scheme coming in,” said coach Kyle Whittingham.
“That’s what you call winning ugly. You’ve got to do that once a while. Good teams will win the ugly ones. It’s good to see our guys hang in there and finish the game when it needed to be finished.”
The Utes (7-3, 6-1) wore all-red uniforms Saturday, and when they trailed by a field goal late in the second quarter, or when they led by just two points deep into the fourth against what is considered one of the worst teams in the country, their faces might have also turned a shade of red.
But maybe Arizona (1-9, 1-6) isn’t as awful as it once was, like when it lost at home to Big Sky opponent Northern Arizona in September.
“It’s not about how pretty it looks. It’s not about having glitz and glamour going with it. It’s about getting the job done, and that’s what we did today,” said quarterback Cam Rising, who completed 19 of 30 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns.
“(Arizona) didn’t have very much going for them so they were trying to knocking us off our path. We knew that coming in and we were ready for it.”
Maybe the Wildcats are turning the corner — and their array of speedsters on offense turned the corner plenty of times Saturday against Utah’s defense for big plays.
At times, the Ute offense sputtered as well.
“It was a very physical game, but we knew that coming in,” said running back T.J. Pledger. “We knew Arizona was coming off a big win and over the season they’ve become progressively better and better.
“We knew it was going to be a fight and that’s what we got … They’re a Pac-12 team, too.”
Arizona freshman QB Will Plummer completed 18 of 33 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown and he also rushed for 50 yards.
“Defensively, we started sluggish — too soft in the run game early on,” Whittingham said. “We stiffened up as the game wore on.”
Utah out-gained Arizona in total offense, 468-329.
Running back Tavion Thomas was held out Saturday as a precaution but Pledger ran 25 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns in his absence.
The Utes scored easily on their opening drive for the fifth consecutive game, capped by an 11-yard touchdown run by Rising.
But Arizona responded on its first drive. Facing fourth-and-5 from the Utah 43, Plummer took the snap and raced past the Utes’ over-pursuing defense for a 43-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7-apiece.
That was the first indication that for the first time in a few weeks, this wouldn’t be easy for Utah.
On the Utes’ next possession, a 41-yard pass play from Rising to Britain Covey was negated by a holding call and they ended up punting. Utah was whistled for eight penalties for 85 yards on the day.
“Far too many penalties. We had been outstanding in the penalty department this year, in fact the best in the league,” Whittingham said.
“Today we had 85 yards in penalties and a lot of key ones that negated some big plays on offense and extended drives for them. So we’ve got to clean that up.”
Moments later, Arizona grabbed a 14-7 lead on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Plummer to Michael Wiley.
Utah tied the game on the first play of the second quarter on Pledger’s 15-yard touchdown run. Then the Utes got a big stop on fourth-and-1 from their own 19.
The next time the Wildcats got the ball, they drove into Utah territory and Lucas Havrisik booted a 57-yard field goal with 1:24 remaining in the half — tying the school record for the longest field goal made. That gave Arizona a 17-14 edge.
But Utah put together a strong drive to end the half that culminated in a 2-yard touchdown catch by Brant Kuithe.
And the Utes took a 21-17 lead into the locker room at halftime.
A 45-yard pass play on Arizona’s opening drive of the second half set up a 31-yard field goal to cut the Wildcats’ deficit to 21-20.
“We had to do our thing as our defense. We were making the plays then it would be one little penalty,” said freshman safety Cole Bishop.
“It would be third-and-long and then a facemask or something and it’s a first down. We had to cut down on penalties.”
Then the Utes continued to sabotage themselves — a 50-yard run by Pledger was nullified by a holding call. But a few plays later, Pledger almost made all of it back on a 43-yard catch-and-run.
Utah capitalized with a 30-yard field goal by Jadon Redding to make it 24-20 with 6:58 left in the third quarter.
The Utes got some breathing room late in the third quarter when Rising connected with Dalton Kincaid on a 17-yard touchdown pass as they seized a 31-20 lead.
Arizona pulled to within 31-23 on another field goal with 11:31 left in the game.
And the Wildcats took advantage of Utah’s punting issues. The Utes had a couple of punts blocked in their loss at Oregon State and Arizona did the same Saturday.
With 10:34 remaining, Isaiah Taylor blocked Utah punter Michael Williams’ punt deep in Ute territory. Ari Short picked up the ball for the Wildcats and scored from the 3-yard line.
Arizona’s ensuing two-point conversion attempt failed and the Wildcats trailed by just 31-29.
“It was a simple protection error by one of our best players. It’s not hard. But obviously we as coaches need to do a better job of coaching because it’s happened more than a couple of times,” Whittingham said of the blocked punt.
“It was a huge play in the game. It didn’t end up costing us the game obviously but it could have.”
After that, Rising engineered a much-needed, game-clinching drive that put the game out of reach.
What was the mentality heading into that possession?
“Let’s take some time off the clock and let’s go score a touchdown and get the game out of hand,” Rising said. “It was a great job.”
No doubt, Utah understands it will need to do a much better job next week against Oregon.
EXTRA POINTS: With the win, Whittingham tied the program record for coaching wins in a career. He has posted a 141-69 record at Utah. Ike Armstrong (1925-49) produced a record of 141-55-15 … Announced attendance was 32,008 … Utah’s leading tacklers were a pair of freshmen — Junior Tafuna (9 tackles) and Bishop (8 tackles) … A few Utah players suffered injuries Saturday, including offensive linemen Paul Maile and Nick Ford and defensive back Faybian Marks.