PULLMAN, Washington — Whoever scripted Thursday’s Pac-12 After Dark game between No. 14 Utah and Washington State deserves consideration for an Emmy — or may have been drinking a little too much Halloween punch.
Here’s a synopsis of this bizarre episode at bone-chilling Martin Stadium: The Utes’ backup quarterback, Bryson Barnes, a pig-farming walk-on from Milford, shockingly takes the field after the opening kickoff, starting in place of injured star Cam Rising, who’s standing on the sideline, wearing a yellow penny.
In the end, Utah — also without running back Tavion Thomas — survived a fourth-quarter turnover in its own territory, and mostly relies on its second string QB, its shaky defense and its inexperienced running backs to beat the Cougars 21-17 and preserve its Pac-12 championship hopes on The Palouse.
Who comes up with these storylines?
Nobody ever said defending a Pac-12 title would be simple.
“Obviously, I knew what was at stake,” Barnes said about stepping in for Rising in his first career start.
“You’ve got to be prepared and treat every game the exact same. Especially right now, we’ve got to keep things rolling. Especially with new guys coming in, new faces on the field. We’ve just got to keep getting wins.”
Added head coach Kyle Whittingham: “I’m proud of Bryson Barnes. He came in in a pretty tough situation and performed well. He did a good job running the offense.”
Whittingham explained that it was Rising’s decision not to play and that he respects that decision.
Rising practiced during the week but Barnes “got put in a tough spot because he was not expected to be the starter up until a half-hour before the game.”
Whittingham said he trusts Rising’s judgment.
“If Cam says he can’t play, he can’t play. There’s no questioning him whatsoever,” he said. “There’s no doubting him whatsoever. He’s the last guy that wants to miss a game.”
The only thing that was missing on this night was Gardner Minshew making a cameo appearance at halftime, twirling his mustache.
Rising’s knee was heavily wrapped, and he was limping when he met with the media two days after Utah’s win over USC, during which he threw for a career-high 415 yards and accounted for five touchdowns.
And even as recently as last Monday, Rising deftly downplayed any hint that he was injured seriously enough to be sidelined.
Before the game, Rising warmed up, as if he were going to play.
But he didn’t.
Enter Barnes, who replaced an injured Rising in the Rose Bowl last New Year’s Day and engineered a touchdown drive against Ohio State.
“He performed admirably under those conditions,” Whittingham said of Barnes’ effort Thursday. “That’s the nature of being the No. 2 quarterback — you’re one snap away the entire game.
“That’s the mindset you’ve got to have, to be ready whenever your number’s called, and go out and perform and get the job done.”
Said Barnes, “There’s always a possibility with things like that. You’ve got to be prepared either way so when that time comes, you’ve got to be able to step up to the plate and be ready to go.”
It wasn’t always pretty against Washington State, but Barnes ended up completing 17 of 27 passes for 175 yards, and he ran eight times for 51 yards.
And he made numerous crucial plays. For example, in the first half, he completed a 31-yard pass to Money Parks, setting up the Utes’ first touchdown.
Late in the third quarter, Barnes sprinted 28 yards on a scramble up the middle to put the Utes in WSU territory. Later on the same drive, on 3rd and 16, Barnes completed a 27-yard pass to Jaylen Dixon and one play later, he threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Kincaid to lift Utah to a 21-7 advantage.
Kincaid suffered an injury on the play and did not return.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the Utes clinging to a 21-17 lead, Barnes managed a game-ending drive.
On 4th and 7 at the WSU 30, a holding penalty on the Cougars negated a Barnes interception with 46 seconds remaining.
Defensively, Utah limited the Cougars to 264 yards, including 42 rushing yards. The Utes also had four sacks.
“The key was the defense. The defense played well,” Whittingham said. “When you make a team one-dimensional, then you have a chance to take control of the game.”
Linebacker Mohamoud Diabate said the defense didn’t feel any extra pressure with Rising sidelined.
“We feel comfortable with Bryson. We see him every day in practice. He’s just as good as anybody in the country,” Diabate said.
“When I see him step out there, I didn’t lose one bit of confidence in winning this game. We knew we had to do our job the same as any week.”
With the win, Utah improved to 6-2 overall and 4-1 in the Pac-12. WSU fell to 4-4 and 1-4.
In the first half, the Utes needed some favorable breaks, too.
Observers were still trying to process the fact that Barnes was taking the snaps when the Utes missed a 37-yard field goal midway through the first quarter on their opening drive.
With the game tied 7-7, a muffed punt by Washington State gave Utah new life. Later in the drive, late in the second quarter on 3rd and 1 from the WSU 3-yard line, targeting was called on Cougars defensive end Brennan Jackson, who lunged into the helmet of Utah running back Ja’Quinden Jackson, giving the Utes a fresh set of downs and more time on the clock.
Two plays later, Jaylon Glover scored a 1-yard touchdown to propel Utah to a 14-7 halftime advantage.
Even without Thomas — Micah Bernard, who’s been banged up, rushed just three times for one yard — the Utes cobbled together a decent ground attack.
Glover finished with 76 yards on 20 carries and Jackson picked up 43 yards on 10 attempts.
WSU quarterback Cameron Ward completed his first 12 passes and was 12 of 13 in the first half. He finished 27 of 31 for 222 yards.
But for Utah, Barnes rose up.
No, this wasn’t the Rose Bowl Game, but under wacky circumstances at Wazzu, the Utes will look back on this as the night Barnes helped earn a key conference win and maybe, just maybe, that will eventually lead to a return trip to Pasadena.
EXTRA POINTS: Before the game, Ja’Quinden Jackson ran out onto the field with a flag honoring Lauren McCluskey, a Utah track athlete who was fatally shot outside her dorm in 2018 by a man she had dated. McCluskey hailed from Pullman … In the fourth quarter, Utah safety R.J. Hubert was ejected for targeting … Whittingham earned his 150th career victory … It marked Utah’s 100th game as a member of the Pac-12.