SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – It was far from perfect, but after two straight agonizing losses and the departure of its starting quarterback, the Utes will take it.
TJ Pledger rushed for 117 yards and the go-ahead touchdown as Utah came from behind to beat Washington State 24-13 on Saturday afternoon in the Utes’ Pac-12 opener.
Utah fumbled the ball seven times, losing three of them, including two in the red zone, but the defense came up with three interceptions and eight sacks to secure the victory.
“We squandered a lot of opportunities for sure,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham. “We had fumbles, we had red zone chances we didn’t capitalize on. So there’s a lot of things that we need to continue to work on and we will keep addressing it. I thought the defense played outstanding. We only gave up 318 yards. That’s not a lot of yards in this day in age of football. That would probably lead the Pac-12 if we could do that every week.”
Pledger, a transfer from Oklahoma who only had 11 yards coming into the game, ran 20 yards for a touchdown with 4:53 to play. He took over for Micah Bernard, who fumbled and had to leave the game with an upper body injury.
“I had some tears in my eyes because it is not easy, college football is not easy,” Pledger said. “You go through ups and downs, and you are not able to remain steady all the time. You just have to keep putting the best foot forward. It meant a lot to me today, and I’m just thankful for my coaches for always believing in me.”
Then Clark Phillips took an interception 54 yards for a score to clinch it with 2:19 remaining. Phillips also had a pick-6 against the Cougars last season.
“You know, you study film, you prepare your game plan every week like it is going to come to you,” Phillips said. “So when it happens, you take advantage of it with your guys and you celebrate.”
Utah had just 96 yards of offense in the first half, but pumped out 254 yards in the second half.
Jarrett Guarantano went 25-of-36 passing for 248 yards but struggled to move the Cougars offense in the second half.
But the Utes (2-2, 1-0) shook off their fumble fingers and made all the big plays in the fourth quarter. Before the Utah offense got moving, the defense kept the Utes in the game with eight sacks and three interceptions.
Devin Lloyd, who also had three tackles for loss, jumped a bubble screen and intercepted Gaurantano’s pass after tipping it. But backup QB Ja’Quinden Jackson fumbled two plays later and Jaylon Watson recovered for the Cougars on their 8-yard line.
On the first play of the second half, Ron Stone Jr. knocked the ball from Utah’s Micah Bernard and Christian Mejia recovered. Two plays later, Guarantano connected with De’Zhaun Stribling for a 26-yard TD and a 13-7 lead.
After back-to-back losses, former Utah QB starter Charlie Brewer was told he’d been demoted and he left the program on Monday.
Cam Rising, who had 137 yards passing, got his first start since last season’s opener against USC when he injured his shoulder in the first quarter. Though he finished strong to force triple-overtime last week at San Diego State, the Utes again struggled to move the ball through the air with just 26 yards passing at halftime.
“We have to pick that up on Monday and make sure the ball security is our No. 1 priority,” Rising said. “That can’t happen again. That was terrible. We have to be better as an offense with that. We can’t give up possessions.”
For the first time this season, the Utes brought extra pass rushers, but that left the middle of the field open for WSU. Adjustments in the second half and a stronger rush quashed any chance of a Cougar comeback.
“We got after the quarterback, which is a plus,” Whittingham said. “We hadn’t done a lot of that this year. But I see eight sacks here and that was a complete turnaround from what we had done in the first three games. That needed to happen. The impact plays on defense, sacks, takeaways, were up and that’s a good thing.”
Utah’s lone scoring drive of the first half consisted of all rushing plays — highlighted by Rising’s 31-yard scamper and capped by Jackson’s 2-yard TD run.
The Utes have a bye next week before visiting USC on Oct. 9.