Pullman, Wash. • No matter what happens the rest of the way at the University of Utah, Thursday night needs to be preserved for posterity.
With its chances of advancing back to the Pac-12 championship game at stake on a weekly basis, the 14th-ranked Utes showed up at Washington State down running back Tavion Thomas, and with backup Micah Bernard severely limited. Quarterback Cam Rising, sporting a sleeve on his injured left knee, went through pregame warmups, but ultimately didn’t feel he was well enough to play.
That left Bryson Barnes, Utah’s walk-on backup and near-Rose Bowl hero to save the season, not to mention show that his Rose Bowl effort was no fluke.
In the end, Thursday night was less about Rising not playing, and more about Barnes playing as well as he did under adverse conditions.
Make no mistake, if Utah wants to be playing in Las Vegas on Dec. 2 with a trip to Pasadena on the line, every game is now a must-win. Utah snuck out of the Palouse late Thursday night with the road to Vegas still open. And while he was not nearly alone in keeping that road open, Barnes woke up Friday morning having rightfully received a lot of the credit.
Breaking down the Cam Rising situation
When Barnes led the Utah offense onto the field to start the game, momentary shock ensued, followed by eyes from the press box scanning the sideline looking for Rising, who was in uniform, but in a yellow pinny.
It was unclear in that moment what had happened to the fifth-year junior. All we knew was he didn’t start. I couldn’t tell you much about what happened in the first quarter as I tried to put the pieces together.
On Oct. 17, two days after Rising threw for 415 yards against USC, Rising met the media to open Utah’s bye week. Upon entering the auditorium at the Eccles Football Center, he had his left knee wrapped and a noticeable, but not prohibitive limp. He was asked about the knee.
“I’m still upright, still doing good, still breathing,” Rising said that day.
We didn’t see Rising again until Monday after practice. I don’t recall if he had the sleeve on the left knee then, but he practiced. At that point, there was no indication he would not play against Washington State.
Rising emerged from the Martin Stadium tunnel late Thursday afternoon with the sleeve on his left knee. He fully went through warmups, culminating, as usual, with him taking a snap with the first-team offense. Business as usual, or so it seemed.
Barnes said he found out a half hour before the game that he would be the starter. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Rising told him he did not feel right and that it was Rising’s decision to not play. Whittingham said he did not question Rising’s decision.
“If Cam says he can’t play, he can’t play,” Whittingham said. “There’s no questioning him whatsoever, no doubting him whatsoever. He’s the last guy that wants to miss a game.”
With Barnes as the starter, true freshman Nate Johnson was the backup, and Ja’Quinden Jackson, who moved from quarterback to running back earlier this fall, would have been No. 3, not Rising, had it gotten to that point.
Next order of business: How banged up is Rising, and will he be able to play against Arizona on Nov. 5? We don’t yet know the answer to either.
But here’s a thought: the fact Rising went through warmups and didn’t make a decision to sit until the last minute would indicate that he was near healthy enough to play. That is conjecture for now. But it could bode well the Utes now have an extra couple of days to get themselves together after playing on a Thursday.
Bryson Barnes answers the call
Barnes, a third-year sophomore walk-on — not to mention a former 1A star at Milford High School whose Utes bio literally says he grew up raising approximately 12,000 pigs — has become something of a cult hero among Utah fans after he nearly stole the Rose Bowl from Ohio State.
In August, he won the backup job in a fall camp battle with Jackson. That was a good story on the heels of the Rose Bowl, but it was cast aside a bit given Rising’s prolificity. I remember thinking in August that if Barnes had to start a game because Rising was unavailable, it was going to be a problem.
That thinking was a little shortsighted.
Whittingham said Rising practiced all week, which would indicate he, not Barnes, took the bulk of the first-team reps. Then, Whittingham went to Barnes and told him his first career start would be on the road in near-freezing temperatures when Utah’s offense was already missing key pieces.
Barnes was solid, finishing 17-for-27 for 175 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions, adding 51 rushing yards on eight carries. Utah’s lone turnover on the night was a botched handoff between Barnes and Jackson. A few plays stand out:
• Third-and-4 at the Utah 46, early second quarter: Barnes to Money Parks along the right sideline for 31 down to the Washington State 23. That drive ended in a Jackson 6-yard touchdown run.
• Third-and-4 at the Utah 36, late third quarter: Pocket collapses, Barnes scrambles for 28 down to the WSU 26.
• Same drive, third-and-16 at the WSU 32: Barnes throws one into some traffic, but Jaylen Dixon goes high and comes down with it for 27 down to the 5. Next play, Barnes to Dalton Kincaid, who was clearly nursing a sore shoulder, on a tunnel screen for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead. Kincaid went right to the injury tent after that and was done for the night (more on that below).
• Final drive of the night, Utah trying to salt the game away, third-and-8 at the WSU 43: Barnes to Devaughn Vele for 10 to move the chains. Nice job by both players to know where the sticks were.
“We feel confident in Bryson, we see him every day in practice,” linebacker Mohamoud Diabate said. “He’s just as good as anybody in the country. When we saw him step out there, I didn’t lose one bit of confidence in winning this game. We just knew we had to do our jobs the same as any other week.”
Back to the aforementioned shortsighted thinking. Barnes proved Thursday night that the Rose Bowl was no fluke, that he is a capable backup, and that he can not only win a game, but win one under duress.
That said, if Rising’s knee ends up being multiple games, it gets harder to envision this Utah team getting back to the Pac-12 championship game, at least with the offense in the type of injury shape it is right now.
The defense had a huge night
For all of the criticism coordinator Morgan Scalley and the defense endured after UCLA and USC, they deserve an equal amount of praise for smothering Washington State.
Cam Ward’s 222 yards on 27-for-31 passing were hollow. Little damage inflicted, almost nothing deep, certainly nothing game-altering beyond a 29-yard first-quarter touchdown pass to De’Zhaun Stribling. That pass, for what it’s worth, appeared to be underthrown and looked destined to be broken up or intercepted, but Clark Phillips III tripped and fell as he tried to rotate his hips to make the play, allowing Stribling to be open.
Some timely blitz calls allowed Diabate to finish with 1.5 sacks. Van Fillinger had arguably his best game of the season with 1.5 sacks, Jonah Elliss was active all night, freshman safety Sione Vaki flashed his potential with a team-high nine tackles.
Ward can be prolific when he gets going, but despite those numbers, he never really got going, which was a huge key. Utah has had trouble this season with athletic quarterbacks Anthony Richardson, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and Caleb Williams. It did not have the same type of trouble with Ward, who could use better weapons out on the perimeter to match his talent level.
Personnel losses are becoming untenable
Utah already had a problem with injuries and, in the case of Tavion Thomas, personal business, and it only got worse on Thursday. Here is a sample of where the Utes are.
We covered Rising above.
Brant Kuithe is out for the season with a torn right ACL.
Thomas did not travel to Pullman, but Whittingham expressed hope Utah will get him back at some point.
Bernard, who has been banged up for weeks, dressed and had three carries, but was a non-factor. His status is murky, but even if he does go next week, it’s likely he will not be 100%.
Kincaid injured his right shoulder, left the game late in the third quarter, did not return, and exited at the end with his right arm in a sling after catching seven passes for 56 yards, both team-highs.
Utah was surviving without Kuithe and Thomas, but Rising is Rising, and Bernard is your most versatile running back. All four of those guys being out is a dire problem. Maybe not against Arizona and Stanford on Nov. 12, but certainly at league-leading Oregon on Nov, 19.
Let’s go with the cautious assumption from above that Rising is close to playing. For everything he does for this offense, trying to theoretically operate without Kincaid, Thomas, and Bernard certainly feels like a bridge too far in terms of where everyone wants this season to ultimately go.
Other things on my mind
• Jaylon Glover, who hadn’t played in two weeks, and Jackson, who hasn’t had much of a role since the grand experiment to make a running back started off well at Arizona State, combined for 30 carries for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Even if Whittingham did not want to give Glover (20-76-1) as much work as he did, he didn’t have a choice with Thomas and Bernard out. Glover played well, as did Jackson in tight spots.
• A quick reminder that Barnes does not have a ton of experience: Early fourth quarter, third-and-1 at the Utah 34, Utes up 21-14. Barnes drops back, gets hurried out of the pocket, and instead of trying to extend the play, throws it into the grass. Jack Bouwmeester on to punt. That play call, having Barnes pass on third-and-1, was wholly crushed in the voids of in-game Ute fan Twitter, maybe fairly so.
• The targeting call on R.J. Hubert was legit. There is now an appeals process in place, which one would assume Utah will take advantage of, but it’s hard to see that getting overturned. If the call holds up, Hubert would miss the first half vs. Arizona.
• Sticking with the officiating. Utah appeared ready to go on fourth-and-4 from the 6 in the closing seconds of the first half. Instead, the field goal unit came out, but not before a targeting review on Washington State’s Brennan Jackson stopped play. Jackson was ejected after he lowered his helmet on Ja’Quinden Jackson on the third down. The result was, instead of a field goal try on fourth-and-4, the Utes were set up with first-and-goal at the 1 with 30 seconds left. Glover’s touchdown run on second-and-goal gave Utah a 14-7 halftime lead. Huge call, huge sequence, huge momentum shift.
• Jadon Redding pushed a 37-yard field goal attempt wide left in the first quarter. That was the 2020 All-Pac-12 kicker’s first attempt after Jordan Noyes, who won the job out of camp, was 6-for-8, but just 2-for-4 from 30 yards or more. On fourth-and-3 from the 18 late in the second quarter. Utah bypassed a 35-yard field goal attempt in favor of Barnes hitting Glover for six yards and a first down out of the backfield. That was either confidence in Barnes, an indictment on the state of the kicking game, or both.
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