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Analysis: Utah flirted with disaster at Arizona, but a win is a win

Utes put together a strong drive to close the game, but key injuries may threaten the future

(Rick Scuteri | AP) Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid (86) catches a touchdown against Arizona in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Tucson, Ariz. Utah won 38-29.

Tucson, Ariz. • After things did not go according to plan Saturday afternoon, after the University of Utah flirted with the unthinkable here in the desert, after everyone took a breath following a 38-29 win over Arizona, TJ Pledger issued a reminder as to what is happening right now.

“It’s Championship November, everybody’s coming,” Pledger said after rushing for 119 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-sealing score with 2:10 left. “Everybody’s getting things together and coming to play hard.”

Whatever you thought was going to happen Saturday between the Utes and Wildcats, well, it didn’t, and there are a lot of reasons for that. But in the end, it is a win, on the road, against a conference opponent. You don’t give any wins back, but you especially don’t give those back.

To be clear, there were problems on Saturday, things to fix before Oregon shows up at Rice-Eccles Stadium this Saturday, but for now, a win is a win, and Utah woke up Sunday in the exact same place it started last week.

In control of the Pac-12 South, in line for a championship by the time November ends.

The final drive

Utah’s offense needed to put something together, and needed to do so pretty badly.

Arizona returned a blocked punt for a touchdown, then missed on the two-point try to remain down, 31-29, with 10:34 left. The Wildcats had the momentum and while Utah was not in full-blown trouble, it needed some breathing room.

A combination of Cam Rising and Pledger calmed everything down, spearheading a 15-play, 75-yard drive across 8:24, capped by Pledger getting stood up on second-and-goal from the 2, only to see his second effort pay off with a touchdown.

Pledger had nine carries for 56 yards on the drive, Rising was 3-for-3 for 27 yards, and both made key plays to keep the ball moving. Rising with a two-yard keeper up the middle on fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 42. Rising over the middle to Dalton Kincaid for 12 yards on third-and-6. Pledger for 13 yards on second-and-15 from the Arizona 18 to set up goal-to-go.

Utah is versatile, but that was one drive where there didn’t need to be a ton of imagination. Give it Pledger, give it to Pledger again, give it to Pledger once more, and sprinkle in a few non-threatening Rising pass attempts for good measure.

Rising was 19-for-30 for 294 yards, two touchdown passes, and an 11-yard rushing touchdown to open the scoring in the first quarter. Saturday felt similar to last week versus Stanford in that Rising was not super-crisp, he missed a few reads, but he was very good, beyond good enough to win a game. He continues to be, pound-for-pound, the best quarterback in the Pac-12 this season.

TJ Pledger highlights Utah’s depth at RB

Utah has three legitimate No. 1 options at running back. That isn’t really up for debate, whether one chooses to look at the stats or go by the eye test.

Utah held out leading rusher Tavion Thomas for precautionary reasons on a day when, based simply on the projected matchup, the Utes shouldn’t have needed him.

In came Pledger, and while he does not have the size of Thomas, he does have the same battering-ram mentality. That served Utah well, especially in the fourth quarter when, of the 20 plays the offense ran, 10 of them went to Pledger on the ground for 55 yards.

Yes, the matchup dictated that Utah could probably get away with sitting Thomas, but if you’re going to sit a guy rushing for 6.1 yards per attempt, you better make certain you’re going to get something out of the next guy, and Pledger delivered.

Micah Bernard was also effective, finishing with 96 total yards on 13 touches, including three catches for 60 yards. Rising hit Bernard a couple of times in the flat, one of which went for a 27-yard gain. He exited at one point and disappeared to the injury tent, but he returned to finish the game.

It is a safe, reasonable guess that Thomas could have played if he had to, but it was good that Utah could find him a full game off because, frankly, there are bigger, more important games coming than the one Utah played Saturday.

Injuries were already an issue, now they’re a bigger issue

Kyle Whittingham at one point recently called his secondary “paper thin,” so another injury against the Wildcats isn’t going to help.

Second-year freshman cornerback Faybian Marks left the game early and was later seen on crutches with his right foot in a boot. In his absence, another second-year freshman, Zemaiah Vaughn entered and he had a rough afternoon in coverage. At times, Arizona was noticeably picking on Vaughn, who has played in all 10 games and started once.

Beyond Vaughn, the offensive line, which has been a significant bright spot for the last few weeks, lost Paul Maile and Nick Ford to injuries late in the game. Ford, who kicked outside to left guard in the absence of Keaton Bills, may have a leg issue, while Maile, who stepped into Ford’s vacant spot at center, was also seen on crutches at the conclusion of the game.

There is not going to be any clarity until at least Monday when Whittingham next addresses the media, but the prospect of losing two offensive line starters is dire. To further boil that down, Ford is by far Utah’s most versatile lineman. If he cannot go vs. Oregon, it is a major problem.

Bills dressed and was active on Saturday, so you could presumably slide him back in at left guard, but if Ford and Maile are both out, what Utah chooses to do at center is going to be a big storyline.

Specials teams are a mess

Utah has had two punts blocked this season, both returned for touchdowns. The one at Oregon State was a killer, the one Saturday was almost that. (A third punt was blocked at Oregon State, but the play was wiped away due to a penalty.)

Whittingham was incredulous Saturday postgame when the topic came up. He lamented that it was a simple punt-protection scheme that simply wasn’t executed. Keep in mind that Whittingham is a former special teams coach who still takes a role in that phase, so these things are a little harder to take because of that.

Whittingham noted he was happy with punt release time on Saturday, so if we’re talking about a protection issue, that is something that should be able to be rectified by two things: better coaching and better communication. Utah already cost itself one game, in part, because of a blocked punt. As it gets later into November and the stakes get higher, it does not need to risk costing itself another because of this.

Special teams have been a problem all season. The two, really three blocked punts and a pair of 100-yard kickoff returns yielded earlier this season are the antithesis of what Utah’s special teams are.

What is a penalty?

Utah is one of the least-penalized teams in the country, ranking fifth in total penalties (37), sixth nationally in penalties per game (4.1), and 12th in penalty yards per game (38.1) entering Saturday.

Against Arizona, the Utes had eight penalties for 85 yards. Pac-12 officiating, and college football officiating as a whole, gets crushed by fans and media alike on a weekly basis, but in fairness, there appeared to be some egregious calls on Saturday.

On third-and-8 from his own 19, Arizona quarterback Will Plummer missed Stanley Berryhill III over the middle, but Cole Bishop was called for a late hit, extending the drive. From up in the press box, the call looked legit, but replays later indicated the call was at least questionable. On the next Wildcats drive, again on third-and-8, Bishop was called for roughing the passer on an incomplete pass. From the press box and on replay, that call was terrible.

Throughout the game, there were three targeting calls rescinded on replay, and a handful of helmet-to-helmet contact that likely fell into the definition of targeting, but no flag was thrown.

Utah did not play an undisciplined football game. Whittingham has never been one to publicly hammer the refs, and he wasn’t going to start on Saturday. Bishop was otherwise outstanding, finishing with eight tackles, three of which went for a loss, a sack, and a pass breakup.

To his credit, when Bishop was asked about his two penalties, he took the high road, saying that he needs to play smarter. The highlight of that exchange was Rising, who was sitting next to Bishop, smiling and shaking his head.

Other things on my mind

• Whittingham now has 141 career wins, tying him with Ike Armstrong for most all-time by a Utah head coach. Predictably, just like he did Monday, Whittingham acknowledged the mark, but mostly glossed over it.

• Utah was officially 6-for-6 in the red zone, but going by “Kyle Math,” where field goals don’t count, the Utes were 5-for-6. The one “miss” came late in the third quarter on a drive that stalled when Pledger took a two-yard loss on third-and-2 from the Arizona 10.

• It seemed like a real possibility Utah would get College GameDay on Saturday, but ESPN will understandably be at Michigan State-Ohio State instead.

• Things likely to happen: Utah wins the South, Oregon wins the North, the Utes and Ducks play each other twice in 13 days.

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