Utah football wins ugly at Arizona, maintains Pac-12 South control

A 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive gave Utah some breathing room after 1-win Arizona made things tough all day.

Utah running back TJ Pledger (5) scores a touchdown in front of Arizona safety Jaydin Young in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Tucson, Ariz. • Kyle Whittingham has never been one to pull many punches, so late Saturday afternoon, in the bowels of Arizona Stadium, the University of Utah head coach was willing to be honest about what he had just witnessed for over three hours.

To be sure, the 24th-ranked Utes left the desert on Saturday with a 38-29 win over the University of Arizona, but the effort was marred by penalties, inconsistencies, and a few key injuries, but also the offense ultimately saving the day.

“That’s what you call winning ugly, you have to do that once in a while,” said Whittingham, whose 141st career win ties him with Ike Armstrong for most by a Utah head coach. “If you’re a good team, you’ll do that, you’ll win the ugly ones. It was good to see our guys hang in there, finish the game when it needed to be finished.”

Utah (7-3, 6-1 Pac-12) remains in sole possession of the Pac-12 South lead with Arizona State-Washington set for a 5 p.m. kickoff in Seattle. The Utes can clinch a spot in the Pac-12 championship game with a Sun Devils loss.

Whittingham noting that his players finished the game when it needed to be finished was a clear reference to Utah’s final drive, which was its best of the day.

Nursing a 31-29 lead after Arizona’s Rhedi Short scooped up a blocked punt and returned it for a three-yard touchdown with 10:34 left, Cam Rising and the offense marched 75 yards in 15 plays across 8:24, capped by T.J. Pledger’s 1-yard touchdown run with 2:10 to play. Jadon Redding’s extra point ended the scoring at 38-29.

Pledger had nine carries for 54 yards on the final drive, while Cam Rising was 3 for 3 for 27 yards, including a key 12-yard completion to tight end Dalton Kincaid on third-and-6 from the Arizona 25-yard line.

On a day when Tavion Thomas was held out for precautionary reasons, Pledger finished with 119 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. By any measurement, Saturday was the Oklahoma transfer’s best, if not most important showing as a Ute.

“Take advantage of the opportunities,” Pledger said in regards to knowing that Thomas would sit on Saturday. “I think Coach Mac (running backs coach Kiel McDonald), Coach Lud (offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig), Coach Whitt do a great job of making sure each back is ready. We have to prepare like you never know when your time will be here and you have to be ready to step up.”

Momentum between the Pac-12 South’s first-place and last-place teams felt up for grabs for much of Saturday afternoon, but Utah appeared to finally grab it late in the third quarter.

On first-and-10 from the Arizona 17, Rising lofted a pass towards the end zone as Kincaid stretched out and made the catch falling towards the back-right corner for a 31-20 lead. Rising finished 19 for 30 for 294 yards and two touchdown passes.

A 22-yard Tyler Loops field goal cut Arizona’s deficit to eight, and after Utah went three-and-out, Nazar Bombata blocked the Williams punt, leading to Short’s scoop-and-score. A two-point try was unsuccessful, leaving the Utes in front, 31-29, with 10:34 left.

Utah has now officially had two punts blocked this season, both returned for touchdowns. A third punt was blocked at Oregon State, but the play was waived off due to a penalty.

“It was a simple protection error by one of our best players,” said Whittingham, visibly frustrated at the special teams issues that have been ongoing. “It’s not hard, but obviously, we as coaches have to do a better job of coaching it because it’s happened a couple of times now, more than a couple of times. That’s on us as coaches and it starts with me.”

This win may have come at significant cost as several key Utes left with injuries, the severity of which will not be known until at least Monday morning when Whittingham is next scheduled to address the media.

Cornerback Faybian Marks and center Paul Maile were both seen on crutches, Marks sporting a boot on his right foot. Nick Ford, Utah’s typical center who has played left guard for the last three weeks, appeared to sustain an injury on the final touchdown drive.