The Utah Utes beat the Washington State Cougars 24-13, in their Pac-12 opener, making key plays at the end to win despite turning the ball over three times.
Here are three takeaways from the Utes’ win.
Fumbles, fumbles, fumbles
By the seventh fumble of the game, Utah fans probably had to laugh to keep from crying.
Utah just kept fumbling the ball, over and over again.
Point Nos. 1, 2, and 3 in practice for Kyle Whittingham this week and next will be ball security. Fumbling been a theme all season for the Utes, who are usually secure with the pigskin.
The Utes fumbled against Weber State, against BYU and then seven times against Washington State, losing three of those. At least two more times, the Utes fumbled the ball but were ruled down by contact
Running back Micah Bernard had three fumbles, losing one, and at least one of those was caused by a bad handoff between him and quarterback Cam Rising. Backup quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson lost the ball, and same with running back Chris Curry, who lost it on the WSU 1-yard-line.
There was another fumble on the snap, attributed to the Utah team. By the time Britain Covey lost a fumble that went out of bounds — the seventh fumble of the day — it was almost expected that the Utes would fumble the ball on every drive.
Some fumbles were caused by hard hits by the Cougars and some were caused by careless carrying by Utah. The Utes have to clean up the turnovers if they want to be successful in Pac-12 play.
Utah’s defense comes up big
Hats off to Utah’s defense today.
Yes, the Utes gave up 318 yards of offense, including 248 yards through the air. Yes, at times the coverage wasn’t the greatest, as the Cougars were able to exploit the middle of the field, especially early on.
But the Utes’ defense was the reason they won the game. Full stop.
At times, you could have put the Benny Hill theme song in the background while Utah’s offense was on the field and it would have fit. Utah’s defense came up big time after time in the third and fourth quarters, holding the Cougars to zero points in the final period.
Washington State was 4-for-15 on third down thanks to the defense (and some poor execution).
It was clear as day that @Utah_Football arrived on field with one thing in mind, never give up.#Pac12FB | @Vegas | #GoUtes pic.twitter.com/9yiVWYfgpG— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) September 25, 2021
Utah was missing some key pieces on defense, with defensive lineman Viane Moala (season-ending injury), star linebacker Nephi Sewell and cornerback JaTravis Broughton out. Freshman Karene Reid filled in for Sewell and had a great game, leading the team with 15 tackles, a sack and a huge interception. Devin Lloyd was again impactful with an athletic interception, a sack and three tackles for loss. Clark Phillips III sealed the game with a pick-six.
The Utes had eight sacks as the defensive line had its best game of the season.
Will TJ Pledger emerge as latest RB1 for Utah?
First, it was Tavion Thomas that was Utah’s RB1 after the season-opening win against Weber State. After Thomas fumbled in the BYU game, the bulk of the carries went to Bernard, who performed well in that game.
But Bernard had three fumbles against Washington State, was hit hard on his last fumble and did not return. After the game, Whittingham reported that Bernard left the contest with an injury.
With no Bernard, TJ Pledger emerged as the best back in the second half, rushing for 117 yards on 10 carries, including a 59-yard run that included a nice stutter-step. Pledger scored the go-ahead touchdown and, most importantly, did not fumble.
Depending on Bernard’s injury situation, Pledger could be next up to get lots of touches.