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Ball security will be point of emphasis for Utes during bye week

The Utes fumbled the ball seven times in their win over Washington State

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Utah running back T.J. Pledger, right, runs past Washington State defenders Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 in Salt Lake City.

Utah running back T.J. Pledger, right, runs past Washington State defenders Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 in Salt Lake City. Pledger rushed for a game-high 117 yards on 10 carries.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

After Utah defeated Washington State 24-13 last Saturday afternoon, coach Kyle Whittingham stated how much he was looking forward to the upcoming bye week to “regroup.”

But after the stunning death of defensive back Aaron Lowe early Sunday morning, there are, obviously, more important matters to tend to. Players and coaches are grieving the devastating loss of Lowe. Media availability scheduled for Monday was canceled.

While the program will deal with those emotions this week — the Utes don’t play again until Oct. 9 at USC — Whittingham said following Saturday’s win that it’s an ideal time for a break.

“It’s a great time for a bye week. It couldn’t be at a better time. You couldn’t script anything better right now than a bye week,” he said after Utah’s win. “That is very welcomed. We need all the time that we can get to regroup and figure some things out and get some guys healed up.”

Offensively, Utah will be emphasizing ball security. The Utes fumbled seven times, losing three of them, against WSU — in quarterback Cam Rising’s first start of the season

“We have to pick up on Monday and make sure that ball security is our No. 1 priority,” Rising said.

“On offense we did some good things but we’ve got to be more consistent,” Whittingham said. “Obviously, we’ve got to take a lot better care of the football. That was the No. 1 issue without a doubt (Saturday).”

Utah’s running back situation is tenuous as well. 

T.J. Pledger rushed for a game-high 117 yards on 10 carries, including a 59-yard run and a 20-yard fourth-quarter touchdown.

Micah Bernard rushed seven times for 19 yards before fumbling early in the third quarter. He also suffered an upper-body injury. 

Tavion Thomas ran once for one yard and fumbled, though he was ruled down. Chris Curry ran twice for seven yards. He also fumbled the ball away.

What’s next for the running back position?

“That’s something that we have to have an answer for. Fortunately, we have a bye week next week to get some of this stuff sorted out,” Whittingham said. “Micah had to leave the game with an injury. We’ve got to figure out what the pecking order is and what that position needs to look like.

“Overall, we’ve got to hone in on that running game and find out who’s going to be the primary ball carrier,” Whittingham added. “We’d like Tavion Thomas to be involved but he put the ball on the ground after the play ... We’ve got to secure the football. That’s the bottom line.”

Backup quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson ran four times for 21 yards and a touchdown from the “wildcat” position. He also lost a fumble while trying to score midway through the third quarter. 

“He did some good things until we put the ball on the ground in the red zone,” Whittingham said. “We felt we needed more ways to run the football. It gives you better numbers. That was a way to supplement quarterback runs with another player.”

Protecting the ball will be a huge focus this week, of course. Whittingham said it’s something that’s a focus in practice all the time.  

“We coach it every day without fail. We continue to coach it every day. We’ve got to keep harping on it until we get the results we need. You start talking about it too much and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It becomes a distraction. We’ve got to get back to work, fundamentally carry the football like you’re taught to do and we’ll be OK.”

Defensively, Utah turned in its best performance of the season, recording eight sacks and forcing three turnovers, including a game-sealing 54-yard pick-six by Clark Phillips with 2:19 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The Utes entered the game without three starters — Nephi Sewell, Viana Moala (who suffered a season-ending injury against San Diego State) and cornerback JaTravis Broughton. 

By the end of the game, they had lost three safeties due to various injuries — Brandon McKinney, Vonte Davis and Cole Bishop. Whittingham said it was uncertain how long those three would be sidelined.