Tucson, Ariz. • None of it came easy or pretty and it certainly came at a cost, but Utah showed it could trade punches with a Pac-12 opponent on the way to its fourth win of the season.
The Utes came away with a 30-24 win in their league opener over Arizona on Friday night at Arizona Stadium, their first win there since 2011. It is the third consecutive conference-opening win for Utah (4-0, 1-0).
“It’s great to come down here and get a win any way you can get it,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It’s a tough place to play. They’re a well-coached football team. They play hard. Rich Rod is always going to find a way to move it on you. He’s got a great grasp of offensive football.”
There was late drama, as Arizona recovered an onside kick after drawing within six points with 2:40 remaining in the fourth quarter. But on the first play of the Wildcats’ drive, Brandon Dawkins fumbled and the ball was recovered by the Utes. The call was upheld upon review, and Utah ran three plays before being forced to punt. As Arizona tried to get a last-gasp drive going, on third down, Dawkins threw his third interception of the night as Corrion Ballard picked off the QB near midfield, allowing the Utes to run out the rest of the clock — with senior captain Troy Williams at quarterback.
The Utes were forced to rely on their depth after the loss of dynamic sophomore starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and senior defensive end Kylie Fitts to injuries as well as junior strong safety Marquise Blair to a third-quarter targeting penalty and ejection.
Huntley completed 8 of 9 passes for 98 yards and one touchdown before he went down with an apparent shoulder injury on the Utes’ first drive of the second quarter.
The Utes took their first possession and marched 73 yards on six plays with several players contributing large chunks of yards. Zack Moss ripped off runs of 25 and 13 yards, Darren Carrington II hauled in a 20-yard reception and Samson Nacua capped the drive with an 8-yard touchdown reception as the Utes took a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.
The sides then exchanged field goals. The Wildcats rode Dawkins’ legs and arm as he ran for 31 yards and passed for 15 more on a 60-yard drive that ended with a 32-yard field goal. The Utes used a 48-yard punt return by Boobie Hobbs to set up a 41-yard field goal for Matt Gay to maintain a seven-point lead.
On their first possession of the second quarter of their conference opener, the Utes’ season took an abrupt turn when Huntley came out of the game after getting sacked and landing hard on his shoulder. The Utes lined up to try to convert a third down, but something seemed to be off as wide receiver Raelon Singleton could be seen waving and gesturing to the sideline.
After a timeout, the Utes inserted Williams, who threw a 40-yard pass to Carrington on his first play from scrimmage. The Utes marched to the Arizona 8-yard line on Williams’ first drive, but a touchdown pass from Williams to Siaosi Wilson got overturned upon review and the Utes settled for a 26-yard field goal and 13-3 lead with 5:39 left in the first half.
“I was just going through my progression like we’ve been doing all year,” Williams said. “Darren had a step on a guy so I gave him a chance, and he was able to come down with the play. It’s just a lot of repetition in practice, drawing the plays out, film, and just applying it to the game.”
The Wildcats pulled within 13-10 with 1:39 remaining in the half when Dawkins scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to cap an 11-play, 75-yard drive. The Wildcats had a chance to tie on the final play of the first half after a Utes punt play went awry, but the field goal attempt fell short.
Williams led the Utes on a scoring march on the opening drive of the second half. He completed a 37-yard pass to Demari Simpkins, who had 40 receiving yards for the season prior to that catch, on third-and-18 to put the Utes inside the Arizona 10-yard line. Williams ran for a 1-yard touchdown two plays later.
With the Utes ahead 20-10 in the third quarter, Dawkins led another Wildcats’ scoring drive, a six-play, 68-yard match capped by a 7-yard J.J. Taylor touchdown run to cut the Utah lead to 20-17.
Utah was forced to punt on its next drive, and Mitch Wishnowsky’s boot was downed at the 5-yard line — and on the third play of the Wildcats drive, Utes freshman defensive back Javelin Guidry intercepted Dawkins and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown and 27-17 lead.
Utes senior defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei blocked a 47-yard field goal attempt with 9:30 left in the fourth quarter, and Gay added another field goal with 4:58 left before Arizona’s rally attempt.