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TUCSON, Ariz. — Brant Kuithe caught the quick horizontal pass and pushed his way into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown to give No. 24 Utah a 4-point lead over Arizona going into the halftime break.
Utah needed the score in the worst way after allowing the Wildcats to score two first-half touchdowns amid a rough showing from its defense and an offense that struggled to drive against an Arizona defense that stuffed the run and contested every pass. The Wildcats weren't going to go down easy.
"It's championship November, everybody's coming," running back TJ Pledger said. "You know everybody's getting things together and coming to play hard."
"They didn't have very much going for them, so they were trying to knock us off our path, and we knew that coming in and we were ready for it," quarterback Cam Rising added.
Coming off its first win after a 20-game losing streak, Arizona exploited a multitude of missed tackles and blown coverage by Utah's defense to make the visiting team sweat more than was expecting in a game Utah was favored to win by 24 points.
Everything that could go wrong seemingly did as Utah couldn't get out of its own way for much of the first half.
And while the second half wasn't a shining example of success, either, Utah found a way to escape the desert with a 38-29 win. Utah may not have covered the spread — and was dangerously close to losing — but in November a win counts the same.
"That's what you call winning ugly — you've got to do that once in a while; and if you're good team you'll do that — you'll win the ugly ones," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It was good to see our guys hang in there — finish the game when it needed to be finished."
"It's not about how pretty it looks," Rising added. "It's not about doing this and having glitz and glamour going with it; it's about getting the job done, and that's what we did here today."
Utah played better in the second half but still allowed Arizona to keep the game close — there wasn't a moment where Utah pulled away for good. As Utah took a double-digit lead, Arizona found an opening — a literal one on a blown assignment — and blocked a punt deep inside Utah territory and ran it in for a touchdown to make it a 2-point game in the fourth quarter.
But Utah used more than eight minutes of possession time on the ensuing drive as Rising methodically picked apart the Arizona defense, and Pledger barreled into the end zone off-tackle for a 2-yard score with 2:10 remaining to give the Utes just enough to hang on for their seventh win of the season.
"He's a guy that has a great deal of confidence," Whittingham said of Rising. "He is a student of the game. He's a football junkie. ... He's the kind of guy that you want playing quarterback — the guy that understands the game and gets it."
Pledger led the running backs, who were without Tavion Thomas due to precautionary measures, with 119 yards and two scores, averaging 4.8 yards on 25 carries. Micah Bernard added 34 yards on 10 carries as Utah rushed for 174 yards against a run defense that made it difficult on Utah to leave its mark.
"It was a very physical game, but we knew that coming in," Pledger said. "We knew Arizona was coming off a big win, and over the season they have progressively become better and better. And we knew that it was gonna be a physical 60-minute fight, and that's exactly what we got."
Utah (7-3, 6-1 Pac-12) opened up the road matchup with a near flawless drive on offense with a mixture of tempo and a diverse play-calling strategy as Rising found the end zone on an 11-yard QB sweep to cap off a nine play, 75-yard drive. The touchdown drive looked easy and the rout was on ... or so it seemed.
On the ensuing drive, Utah's defense jumped out and got a pass deflection on third down and appeared ready to receive the ball. But Arizona (1-9, 1-6) head coach Jedd Fisch sent out his offense on fourth-and-5. Utah over-pursued on the play in hopes of getting to the backfield and quarterback Will Plummer ran untouched 43 yards to the end zone to equalize.
It was then that Utah found itself in a dog fight against a team that just snapped a 20-game losing streak the week before against a hobbled California team.
Rising finished the Saturday afternoon game throwing for 294 yards and two touchdowns to lead Utah in the win. He added 22 yards and a rushing touchdown on the ground.
In the win, Whittingham tied the all-time winning record at Utah. It's a record that Whittingham said is a reflection of all the people that have come through the program that have helped him get to where he is today — including the stability of the program.
"They say every year that goes by 10% more of the people hate you — your fan base — and so I don't think there's anyone left that likes me," Whittingham said in jest before he got a little emotional. "But I've been blessed. I have nothing but gratitude for my time at the U. And what can I say? It's just been a lot longer than I ever thought it would be."
Utah is one win away from locking up the South division title race, assuming Arizona State wins out on the season, with two home games left on the regular-season schedule. Utah will return home to play North division favorite No. 3 Oregon in a potential preview of the Pac-12 title game in Las Vegas.
"It's always good when you have to face adversity and be in another situation that you have to overcome, especially as a team," Rising said. "We did a great job with that today. It's gonna to help us going forward."