At the end of a turbulent week that saw it lose in triple overtime and then watch its starting quarterback leave the program, Utah almost fumbled away its Pac-12 opener.
The Utes fumbled the ball an absurd seven times — they lost three of them — and the offense sputtered once again, but in the end, Utah rallied in the fourth quarter to defeat Washington State 24-13 at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday afternoon and, in the process, snapped a two-game losing streak.
“After two losses, it’s huge. We needed it,” said quarterback Cam Rising, who became the starter after Charlie Brewer’s departure last Tuesday. “This is something that we couldn’t have allowed for another one to happen here. Three in a row, that’s not good. We had to make a stop right here and lock in and get this one done.”
While the bevy of fumbles kind of defined this game, it was a 54-yard pick-six by cornerback Clark Phillips that sealed the win for the Utes with 2:19 remaining.
Prior to that, Utah running back T.J. Pledger, who had run for only 11 yards this season coming into the game, ran for a 20-yard touchdown at the 4:43 mark of the fourth quarter that gave Utah a 17-13 advantage — a lead it would not relinquish.
Pledger rushed 10 times for 117 yards against the Cougars.
“I love giving the ball to (Pledger). He’s a playmaker,” Rising said. “He showed it right there. I love seeing that, especially when he hit that crease. It’s a great thing to see.”
“Relief,” coach Kyle Whittingham said about that Pledger touchdown after so many miscues and missed opportunities by the offense. “It was like, ‘Hey, that’s how we’re supposed to do it.’”
With the win, Utah improved to 2-2 overall and 1-0 in Pac-12 play. Washington State fell to 1-3 and 0-2.
The Ute offense struggled to get into a rhythm most of the day. Not only did it give away the three fumbles, but the Cougars had the ball for nearly 37 minutes compared to just 23 minutes for Utah.
“That can’t happen again. That was terrible,” Rising said of the fumbles. “We have to be better as an offense at that. We can’t give up possessions like that … It can change the course of a game too fast.”
That was evident again and again Saturday.
Rising, who completed 13 of 23 passes for 137 yards in his first complete Division I game, praised the Utah defense for keeping the Utes in contention, even when things seemed to be unraveling.
“The defense played unreal. They did their job,” he said. “Now it’s up to the offense to hold its end of the bargain.”
Clearly, the Ute offense is still a work in progress, but after what this team has been through the past few weeks, Whittingham was happy to see it earn a win for the first time since Sept. 2.
“It was a huge win for our program, a huge win for our players because they’ve been working hard every week. It’s great to see them get some results for their hard work,” he said. “The way they approached this past week — their attitude, their mentality and their work ethic was as good as it’s ever been. To see them get the victory and show the proof of their work was great.”
Despite the win, Utah’s offense seemed out of sync from the outset. The Utes gained just 36 yards in the first quarter and Washington State got on the board first with a 39-yard field goal by Dean Janikowski with 10:34 left in the second quarter.
Utah’s offense finally showed signs of life in the second quarter, though its first scoring drive on the day started inauspiciously. Tavion Thomas took a handoff and fumbled, which started a theme. Fortunately for the Utes, it was ruled that Thomas was down so they maintained possession.
One play later, Rising streaked around the right side for a 31-yard pickup. A facemask penalty on Washington State tacked on 15 more yards and Utah found itself at the Cougar 33-yard line.
After a 14-yard run by Britain Covey, backup quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson entered the game and ran for eight yards on a keeper, then scored on a 2-yard run to put the Utes ahead 7-3 with 4:14 left in the quarter.
Washington State drove deep into Utah territory on its final drive of the first half and added another score on a 20-yard field goal by Janikowski.
At halftime, it was 7-6 for the Utes.
Utah had 96 yards of total offense at intermission — and 80 of those yards were amassed on one drive. The Ute offense had the ball for only eight minutes in the first half.
On the first play from scrimmage in the second half, Micah Bernard fumbled the ball and it was recovered by Washington State.
“We squandered a lot of opportunities for sure,” Whittingham said. “We’ve obviously got to take a lot better care of the football.”
The Cougars cashed in on that miscue as Jarrett Guarantano threw a 26-yard touchdown strike to freshman wide receiver De-Zhaun Stribling, and with that, Washington State retook the lead, 13-7.
Utah closed the game to 13-10 in the third quarter on a 12-play, 64-yard drive that culminated with a 28-yard field goal by Jadon Redding. The Utes had first-and-10 at the WSU 12 but two incompletions by Rising forced them to settle for a field goal.
Later in the period, linebacker Devin Lloyd intercepted Guarantano when he tipped the pass, dove and made a diving catch.
“Great pick by Devin Lloyd,” Whittingham said. “A great individual play by Devin.”
And the Utah offense was set up for success at the Cougar 19.
That was until Jackson, who was playing quarterback in place of Rising, fumbled at the WSU 8-yard line and Washington State took over again.
A couple of times earlier in the contest, Utah fumbled but those fumbles were ruled to have occurred after the play was whistled dead.
Late in the third quarter, Utah once again drove into the red zone but it went scoreless again as Redding missed a 31-yard field goal attempt.
A 59-yard run by Pledger put the Utes at the WSU 15-yard line early in the fourth quarter, but as Chris Curry barreled toward the end zone he — you guessed it — fumbled and the Cougars recovered. It was Utah’s third lost fumble of the day and its sixth total fumble.
After a Utah stop, Covey fumbled — really — but, mercifully for the Utes, it rolled out of bounds.
But the stars aligned for Utah on the ensuing drive. The Utes didn’t fumble and they scored on that touchdown run by Pledger.
Then Phillips left no doubt with his interception return for a TD.
“Credit our guys for playing the full 60 minutes. That’s pretty much what it took,” Whittingham said. “We left a lot out there. Credit Washington State for playing hard. They were scrappy and played the whole four quarters as well.”
Despite all the mistakes, Whittingham will take the win following a turbulent week.
Utah now has a bye week and will play at USC on Oct. 9.