The Utah Utes played like a team on the verge of elimination Saturday night, pulling out tricky and risky plays and all-but-forgotten players as they gave their best shot at maintaining bowl-eligibility hopes.
But the high risks didn’t pay off for the Utes. Arizona prevailed with a 34-24 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium, ending Utah’s hopes of being bowl-eligible for a 10th straight season.
It marks the first time since 2002 that the Utes (4-7, 2-6) won’t go to a bowl game.
As Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said earlier this week, the Utes are in a new world of football as a Pac-12 team. Right now, that world is filled with bitter disappointment.
“There can be a lot of explanations,” defensive end Trevor Reilly said. “But at the end of the day, we just didn’t get the job done.”
The Utes, picked to finish second in their division, wrap up their season at Colorado on Friday.
For the first time since they finished 5-6 in 2002, the outcome of that game matters little in the big scheme of things.
What’s frustrating for the Utes is that a victory over the Wildcats (7-4, 4-4) was tantalizingly close.
Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, coming off the worst performance in his young career, played with more confidence than he has in previous starts and finished 28-for-40 for 311 yards.
Running back John White also had a solid game, finishing with 27 carries for 112 yards to set a school record for most 100-yard games in a career with 13.
Their performances were enough to help the Utes take a 24-17 lead into the fourth quarter after Wilson threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to DeVonte Christopher, which was just the senior’s second touchdown of the season.
Normally Utah’s defense plays well when the Utes have a lead to protect.
But fitting for an abnormal season, the Utes’ defense couldn’t keep Arizona pinned.
Arizona quarterback Matt Scott finished 12-for-27 for 160 yards and a touchdown while running back Ka’Deem Carey rushed 26 times for 204 yards.
The Utes knew Arizona, which has the highest-ranked offense in the league, was going to get its share of yards. But Utah failed to get the key stops, a common theme for the Utes this season.
After Christopher’s score, Arizona used a 75-yard drive to tie the game with a 2-yard run by Daniel Jenkins.
The key play in the drive was a 19-yard pass from Scott to Austin Hill on a third-and-11, one of the seven third-down conversions the Wildcats successfully converted on 16 attemtps.
The Utes, who gambled successfully with flea flickers and a faked kick that went for a touchdown earlier in the game, pushed the risks too far on the following possession.
Facing a fourth-and-6 on their own 39-yard line, the Utes faked a punt with punter Sean Sellwood throwing a pass to Mike Honeycutt.
Honeycutt was stopped 4 yards short of the first down, and Arizona took over on Utah’s 41-yard line.
The Wildcats needed just four plays to make the Utes pay, with Ka’Deem Carey rushing for 20 yards on one play and Scott connecting with Hill in the corner of the end zone on an 18-yard touchdown pass to take a 31-24 lead.
The Utes never recovered.
Their last gasp ended when Utah took over on its 7-yard line with 5:59 remaining. The Utes earned one first down but couldn’t convert a fourth-and-4 as receiver Kenneth Scott was stopped a yard short.
Just like everything else Saturday, the effort was there, but it just wasn’t good enough.
Arizona 34, Utah 24
R IN SHORT • The loss marks the first time since 2002 that the Utes won’t go to a bowl.
KEY STAT • Ka’Deem Carey rushed 26 times for 204 yards against the Utes.