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Utah football report card: No. 24 Utes so-so in win over Arizona

Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid, wearing red, catches a touchdown
Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid (86) catches a touchdown against Arizona in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Tucson, Ariz. Utah won 38-29.
Rick Scuteri, Associated Press

No. 24 Utah grinded out a 38-29 win against 1-9 Arizona Saturday, doing enough to improve to 7-3 overall and 6-1 in Pac-12 play.

Here are the grades from the Utes’ win:

Offense

With Utah holding running back Tavion Thomas out of the game out of precaution, Utes quarterback Cam Rising and running back TJ Pledger stepped up big on offense in his absence.

It definitely wasn’t as good of a performance as the Utes’ offense had in wins against USC, Arizona State, UCLA and Stanford, but on a day when Utah’s defense struggled a bit, the offense got the job done.

Rising had a one of his best performances of the season, throwing for 294 yards and two touchdowns. He completed 19 of 30 passes and didn’t have an interception.

He also ran for 22 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown run. It was Rising’s second-best performance of the season passing yards-wise, trailing only the USC game.

Rising made a few big-yardage passing plays, connecting with TJ Pledger for a 43-yard gain and Brant Kuithe and Britain Covey each for 29-yard gains.

His two touchdown passes were a 2-yarder to Kuithe on a quick pass to end the first half and a 17-yarder to Dalton Kincaid in the corner of the end zone.

Rising came up big on third down as well. He threw it nine times on third down, converting six of those passes.

Eight different receivers had catches for Utah, led by Micah Bernard, who had three for 60 yards.

Kuithe (56 yards), Pledger (43 yards) and Covey (40 yards) all notched over 40 yards receiving.

Pledger rushed for 119 yards on 25 carries and scored two touchdowns. It was a nice game for him as he stepped up in the absence of Tavion Thomas.

Bernard had 10 carries for 34 yards.

The Utes didn’t have the night that they had against Stanford on the ground, as the longest run by a Utah running back was 15 yards, but the Utes were able to turn in a respectable performance bit by bit.

Utah’s final offensive possession was perhaps its best. Up by only two with 10 minutes left, the Utes burned 8:24 off the clock as Pledger led the Utes down the field, cumulating in a touchdown run from him to seal the game.

Grade: B+

Defense

Arizona’s first touchdown came when the Utes blitzed Wildcat quarterback Will Plummer on 4th and 5, but Nephi Sewell jumped to block what he thought was going to be a Plummer pass.

Instead, Plummer tucked the ball and ran 43 yards down the middle of the field, which had Ute players in it.

It didn’t help that Fabian Marks came up lame during the play, as he may have had a shot at Plummer at the 30-yard line.

The Plummer rushing touchdown injected confidence in the Wildcats.

When Arizona went into an up-tempo offense in the first quarter, the Utes defense just looked lost.

Utah seemed unprepared to deal with a fast-moving Arizona offense, and the Utes found themselves trailing after the first quarter.

This Utah defense is young, so mistakes are to be expected from time to time, but the Utes’ defense had too many blown coverages on Saturday.

At other times, Utah just looked slow and confused while aligning in between plays.

Penalties also hurt the Utes. Utah’s defense had four penalties for 50 yards. Three of those penalties — a personal foul and roughing the passer penalty by Cole Bishop, and a facemask penalty by Junior Tafuna — extended an Arizona drive after the Utes stopped them on third down.

Two of those drives ended in field goals for the Wildcats, including a key field goal in the fourth quarter that cut Utah’s lead to eight points.

After allowing two touchdowns in the first quarter, Utah’s defense locked down a little bit and did not allow a touchdown the rest of the game, but the penalties to extend drives were rough.

Tafuna and Bishop ended up having good games, with Tafuna leading the Utes in tackles with nine, including a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss.

Bishop had eight tackles, including a sack and three tackles for loss.

Grade: C

Special Teams

The Utes’ special teams nightmare continues.

Arizona blocked Michael Williams’ punt with 10:41 remaining in the fourth quarter and ran it in for a touchdown to cut Utah’s lead to two points.

Two Wildcats got to the punt as Utah’s blocking effort was nearly nonexistent.

The Wildcats were stopped by Utah’s defense on the two-point conversion, so the Utes avoided complete disaster, but it’s the second blocked punt this season that has been returned for a touchdown.

Unofficially, the Utes have have had three total punts blocked this season, but one ended up not counting because Oregon State had two players wearing the same number on the field when it blocked Utah’s punt.

Jordan Noyes sent Utah’s first kickoff of the day out of bounds, and Jadon Redding took over kickoffs after that.

Redding made a 30-yard field goal and was 5-for-5 on extra points.

Grade: D-