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Utes overcome 7 fumbles, rally past Washington State in Pac-12 opener

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) gets pressured Washington State defense compete during an NCAA college football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 in Salt Lake City.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) gets pressured Washington State defense compete during an NCAA college football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 in Salt Lake City. (Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Saturday could only be described as a comedy of errors for a Utah program looking to rebound from a disappointing nonconference slate.

The Utes finished the midday game with seven fumbles (three lost), and those were only the ones that counted on the official stat sheet. In total, Utah had about nine or 10 fumbles — we lost track eventually — that weren't officially tracked due to a player being down before the ball came loose.

Even when Utah seemed to put things together on a drive in the fourth quarter, Chris Curry fumbled the ball in the end zone and Washington State recovered.

In short, it was way too many; and it didn't matter who tried to secure the ball on offense as the result ended the same way.

"That's something that we can't do; we can't allow it to happen," Utah quarterback Cameron Rising said. "It can change the course of a game too fast and we ended up shooting ourselves in the foot because of it too many times. That message has to be felt and it has to be firm."

It was perhaps fitting, then, that Clark Phillips III secured a victory over Washington State with a pick six in the final minutes.

The fumbles — somehow — didn't derail Utah, which claimed a late 24-13 win over the visiting Cougars, who played without starting quarterback Jayden de Laura and starting running back Max Borghi for the second half.

"Honestly, it came down to grit," Phillips told the Pac-12 Network after the game. "I thought our team showed a lot of grit today."

"First of all, credit our guys for playing the full 60 minutes. That's pretty much what it took," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We talked about that all week: fighting for 60 and understanding it may take a full 60, which it pretty much did this afternoon."

Despite the multitude of turnovers, Utah trailed by just 3 points late in the third quarter — and that was after Utah missed a 31-yard field goal attempt (and more fumbles).

The Utes made up for the turnover woes with eight sacks, including three from Corner Canyon product Van Fillinger. Backup linebacker Karene Reid, who replaced Nephi Sewell in the lineup due to an injury sustained in the San Diego State game, led the team with 15 total tackles, one sack and one interception.

"Those guys were getting to the quarterback consistently," Phillips said. "It was a testament to the D-line, forcing the quarterback back, and we had to capitalize."

Late in the fourth quarter, Utah put together an eight-play, 72-yard drive that was capped off with a 20-yard rushing touchdown by TJ Pledger for the go-ahead score with 4:53 left to play, setting up Phillips' pick six on the ensuing possession. In the end, it was enough to seal the victory for the Utes.

"It was like, 'Yeah, OK, that's how we're supposed to do it,'" Whittingham said of the effective drive. "And then we also missed a short field goal that should have been a gimme chip shot, and so we we left a lot out there. Credit Washington State for playing hard; they were scrappy and played the whole four quarters, as well.

"We've got a lot of work — kind of the same song and dance you've heard for the last three weeks," he added. "We've just got to continue to get better and become who we need to become offensively, because right now we're just still a work in progress on that side of the ball."

Pledger finished the game as the team's leading rusher with 117 yards on 10 carries, including a 59-yard run in the fourth quarter. The long run, in which Pledger seemed to wrap both arms around the football, put the Utes in prime territory to take the lead. But the drive ended when Curry fumbled the ball in the end zone to squash any hopes for a score.

But Utah persevered and continued to fight until Pledger found the end zone for the go-ahead score.

"We're resilient," Rising said of the team's effort. "We'll stay in that game until the final buzzer goes off."

The game started out much like the previous two — both losses — for the Utes as the offense struggled to move the ball or sustain plays, despite Rising being named the team's starter at quarterback this week. Rising gave the offense a boost in the second quarter when he escaped off the edge for a 31-yard pickup. Washington State added to the yardage with a personal foul penalty to put Utah deep in the Cougars' territory.

A few plays later, backup quarterback Ja'Quinden Jackson used a lead blocker to get into the end zone on a 2-yard rushing touchdown in what would be the only offensive score for much of the game for the Utes Saturday. That's until Utah managed to pull away in the fourth quarter.

Phillips capped off the day when he ran back an interception 54 yards on fourth-and-8 with 2:19 remaining to help the Utes pull away for good.

Rising finished his first full start as quarterback throwing for 137 yards on 13-of-23 passing, and 32 rushing yards. Utah totaled 375 yards of offense, including 213 on the ground.

"It was nice, yeah," Rising said of getting a full game under his belt. "I'm glad we won this time — no injury or nothing, so that's good. It's always a positive."

Notes:

  • Starting running back Micah Bernard was injured late in the game. Whittingham said the team will take the bye week to see if he's healthy and to sort out a depth chart for the running back room, which has had a new player step up each week.
  • Whittingham said the team lost three safeties to injury Saturday — Vonte Davis, Brandon McKinney and Cole Bishop — but it's unknown at this time the severity of their injuries or if it will hold any of them out of competition.
  • Placekicker Jadon Redding missed another field goal attempt Saturday, leaving Jordan Noyes to fill his role in PAT tries late in the game. Whittingham said Noyes has been playing well as of late and may take over as the team's starter.

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