Dalton Kincaid shuffled back and forth, sideline to huddle, as he grimaced and labored around Allegiant Stadium for three hours.
He was hurt, clearly hobbled from a lower body injury he suffered just six days before in Colorado. His pitch count of plays, and gut-wrenching signs of a limp, were enough to show it.
But he was on Utah’s last line of defense as a Rose Bowl berth lingered. He had to play. In a season that had teetered on the edge for so long, where injuries and departures seemingly threatened Utah’s season at every turn, Kincaid represented the last chance to bring the Utes back to the seat of the San Gabriel Mountains and salvage a year that had everything riding on it.
And so he played Friday, coming out every few snaps to get water or treatment. And he did enough, with three critical first downs, 40 yards and playing decoy all night, to claw Utah out a 14-point deficit and eventually win 47-24. It wasn’t pretty, but it was gritty. It was the story on Utah’s season — a season that will once again end in roses.
“They’re warriors, it’s hard to believe,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said as he walked off the field.
Utah came into this year thinking it was Rose Bowl or bust, maybe even College Football Playoff if everything fell into place. But then an early loss to Florida came in Week 1. Soon after the injury bug hit.
Brant Kuithe, Utah’s pre-season All-American, went out for the year with a torn ACL. Quarterback Cam Rising missed a game with a shoulder injury. Tavion Thomas left the team early because of his own injury. Then, on the final weekend of the regular season, Kincaid himself went down with a lower body injury.
It looked like a repeat trip to the Rose Bowl wasn’t going to happen. This was before the Utes needed a modern miracle just to get into the Pac-12 championship.
But on Friday, the Utes had a final chance to play for a Pac-12 title. Win and the season is saved. Lose and this squad’s legacy is up for debate.
And it was Kincaid, and a bunch of players who were hobbling around or weren’t supposed to play at all, gutting it out for a win. Ja’Quinden Jackson, the quarterback turned running back, rushed for 90 yards and had the backbreaking touchdown with five minutes left in the fourth quarter to win the game.
Thomas Yassmin, the rugby star turned tight end, had a touchdown in the third quarter to give the Utes a two-score lead in the third. R.J. Hubert picked off Heisman trophy favorite Caleb Williams — the same safety who didn’t make a start last year — to seal the defensive performance.
And finally it was Kincaid, grimacing every time he was hit, doing all the little things to anchor a win.
At the end of the game, he couldn’t even trot out for the final touches of Utah’s win. The run blocking was apparently too much for his body.
He was on the sidelines smiling, hugging his teammates. The ones that were hurt. The ones that were out of the year. He gave it everything he had, been the final chance for Utah, and he came through to send Utah to Pasedena once more.