Utah football survives seven fumbles, outlasts Washington State to open Pac-12-play with a win

Ute defense records eight sacks, holds Cougars to 70 yards rushing.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Ja'Quinden Jackson (3) is stopped as the University of Utah hosts Washington State, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

T.J. Pledger didn’t fumble.

That’s good, because on a day when seemingly no one in a University of Utah uniform could hold on to the ball, Pledger did, specifically at a critical time.

The Oklahoma transfer’s 20-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter gave the Utes the lead for good, not to mention saving them from themselves in a 24-13 win in front of an announced Rice-Eccles Stadium crowd of 51,483 on Saturday afternoon.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) celebrates the win as the University of Utah hosts Washington State, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Pledger’s touchdown, his first in a Utah uniform, only came after the Utes fumbled seven times, three of which were lost. In two additional instances, Utah players lost the ball, but were ruled down by contact.

“We coach it every day, without fail, and we’re going to continue to coach it every day,” Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We just have to keep harping on it until we get the results that we need. If you start talking about it too much, it almost starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy where it becomes a distraction. We just have to go back to work, fundamentally carry the football like we’re taught to do, and we’ll be OK.”

Added fourth-year sophomore quarterback Cam Rising, who was 13 for 23 for 137 yards in his second career start: “We have to pick up on Monday and make sure that ball security is our No. 1 priority. That can’t happen again, that was terrible. We have to be better as an offense with that, we can’t give up possessions like that.”

On the first play of the second half with the Utes (2-2, 1-2 Pac-12) leading 7-6, Utah’s most-reliable running back through three games, Micah Bernard, lost a fumble deep in his own end. Cougars defensive tackle Christian Mejia pounced on it at the Utah 21-yard line. The third play of the ensuing drive saw Jarrett Guarantano go over the middle to De’Zhaun Stribling, who reached up to make a difficult 26-yard touchdown catch.

Dean Janikowski’s extra point gave the Cougars a 13-7 lead at the 13:40 mark of the period. Utah got to within three at 13-10 on the next drive via a Jadon Redding 28-yard field goal, but that’s where the scoring stayed as the Utes consistently cost themselves opportunities to tie or take the lead.

Second-year freshman quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson, in the game for short-yardage purposes, fumbled the ball away on the Washington State 8 after a Devin Lloyd interception set the Utes up at the 19.

Rising fumbled on the next drive, recovered it, but Redding’s missed 31-yard field goal attempt kept the score at 13-10. That was the All-Pac-12 kicker’s third missed field goal this season.

In the fourth quarter, Chris Curry fumbled the ball away on the goal line after a 59-yard Pledger run brought Utah to the 15 two plays earlier. That was followed later by Britain Covey fumbling forward out of bounds on a punt return, which coincided with him breaking the program record for punt return yards in a career at 903.

In the middle of the fumbling, Utah’s defense spent all day giving the offense a chance to steal a game it probably had no business winning. The defense yielded just 318 total yards, which Whittingham singled out as a huge plus, including 70 yards on the ground. Lloyd had the interception, Clark Phillips III capped the scoring with a 54-yard interception return for a score, and Guarantano was sacked eight times, three of which belonged to second-year freshman defensive end Van Fillinger.

Washington State’s final six drives consisted of the Lloyd and Phillips interceptions, three punts and a turnover on downs.

“Each time the ball came back to the defense, we had to take it from there and give it back to the offense as many times as possible, so we were just trying to stay positive,” said linebacker Karene Reid after his first career start in which he had a team-high 15 tackles in place of Nephi Sewell.

This win may have come at great cost in terms of health and depth. Whittingham said postgame that Bernard suffered an upper-body injury on the aforementioned fumble to open the second half, while safeties Vonte Davis, Brandon McKinney and Cole Bishop were all hurt at various points. Davis and McKinney are Whittingham’s starting free and strong safeties, respectively, while Bishop, a true freshman, has seen time behind McKinney at strong safety.

Whittingham did not know the severity of the injuries to any of the four players. He is next scheduled to address the media on Monday morning as Utah enters its open week ahead of a trip to USC on Oct. 9.