TUCSON, Ariz. (ABC4 Sports) – It was a lot tougher than expected, but the Utes got the job done against lowly Arizona, 38-29.
Cam Rising threw for 294 yards and two touchdowns, while T.J. Pledger filled in for the injured Tavion Thomas and ran for 119 yards and two touchdowns, as Utah pulled out the victory.
“It’s not about how pretty it looks,” Rising said. “It’s not about having glitz and glamour, it’s about getting the job done and that’s what we did here today.”
Utah (7-3, 6-1 Pac-12, No. 24 CFP) maintains its lead over Arizona State in the Pac-12 South. The Sun Devils defeated Washington Saturday, 35-30, so one more victory by the Utes, or one more loss by ASU, and Utah will clinch the division title and a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
It was a hard-earned win for the Utes. Arizona led for part of the first half and kept the game tight all afternoon.
“That’s what you call winning ugly,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “You’ve got to do that once in a while. If you’re a good team, you’ll do that.”
Rising’s perfectly placed 17-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Kincaid in the back corner of the end zone late in the third quarter gave the Utes a 31-20 lead and some semblance of control in the back-and-forth game.
It didn’t last long.
Arizona (1-9, 1-6) responded with a field goal to cut the advantage to 31-23 and then the Wildcats scored again when Nazar Bombata blocked a Utah punt and Rhedi Short recovered before scoring a 3-yard touchdown to pull within 31-29 with about 10:30 left. The Wildcats’ two-point conversion to tie was unsuccessful.
Utah finally closed the game with a methodical 15-play, 75-yard drive that lasted more than eight minutes. It was capped by Pledger’s 2-yard touchdown run with 2:10 left.
“We knew it was going to be a physical, 60-minute fight,” Pledger said. “That’s exactly what we got.”
Utah’s offense was the difference-maker once again. The Utes have scored at least 34 points in five straight games. They took a 21-17 halftime lead after Rising hit Brant Kuithe for a 2-yard touchdown with two seconds remaining.
Arizona had pushed ahead 17-14 a few minutes earlier after Lucas Havrisik crushed a 57-yard field goal that cleared the crossbar with plenty of room to spare.
Arizona’s multiyear struggles have been well-documented, but for a fourth straight week the Wildcats proved to be a competitive opponent. They played Washington and USC tight back in October before snapping their 20-game losing streak with a 10-3 win over California last week.
That momentum carried over for most of the afternoon, but it couldn’t lead them to a second straight win.
“That was the most upset I’ve seen our locker room in a while,” Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said. “And I think it’s because they feel like we’re there. … You go into the game with an expectation of winning.”
Arizona’s Will Plummer finished with 219 yards passing and one touchdown.
Utah scored a touchdown on the game’s opening drive thanks to two big third-down conversions. Rising capped the drive with an 11-yard touchdown run, slicing into the corner of the end zone just inside the right pylon.
Arizona responded with a 43-yard touchdown from Plummer — the team’s only healthy scholarship quarterback — who avoided Utah’s pressure and scrambled straight up the middle to tie the game at 7-all.
Whittingham earned his 141st win, which ties the program record that originally set by Ike Armstrong, who coached the program from 1925 to 1949. Whittingham is in his 17th season with the Utes.
Utah next hosts #2 Oregon Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.