Three takeaways from a grind-it-out Utah win over Washington State
A win is a win, and Utah will surely be happy to escape Pullman with a 21-17 win on Thursday night.
The Utes took a rather adventurous path to their sixth win of the season, coming out of the bye week beat up and looking a bit shaky in spots. But they pulled out a victory to stay in the Pac-12 championship race, moving to 6-2 on the year and 4-1 in Pac-12 play.
On the other side, Washington State dropped its third straight game to fall to 4-4 and 1-4 in Pac-12 play.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
Utes get beat up on the Palouse
Starting quarterback Cameron Rising did not play. Starting tailback Tavion Thomas did not travel with the team to Pullman. Starting tight end Dalton Kincaid left the game in the third quarter. Second-string running back Micah Bernard was reportedly unavailable to play, and then available, and then on the field, and then on the sideline for good.
Utah has already lost tight end Brant Kuithe for the season and reserve running back Chris Curry.
The offensive talent is in a very precarious spot for Utah heading into the final four weeks of the season.
Rising was the surprise. After going through warmups, Rising opened the game on the sidelines, wearing his pads and jersey but with a yellow penny over them. Sophomore Bryson Barnes drew his first career start. Barnes was serviceable, completing 17 of his 27 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown, fleet-footed when needed.
It was a gutsy performance, an admirable one. But the Utah offense didn’t have the same punch as it has had with Rising at the controls.
Asked why at halftime, coach Kyle Whittingham said Rising was simply unavailable.
It’s unclear why Thomas didn’t play. It’s unclear what ails Bernard. Bernard got three early rushing attempts, picked up a single yard, and then the backfield turned over to Jaylon Glover and Ja’Quinden Jackson.
Glover had his biggest workload of the season, but he struggled to find room against a strong Wazzu front. The freshman back finished with 76 yards and a score on 20 carries. Jackson had 10 carries for 43 yards and a score, but he fumbled a handoff at the mesh point in the fourth quarter that led to Washington State points.
Once again, the ground game looked like it was missing something.
Kincaid finished with seven catches for 56 yards and a touchdown. The score knocked him out of the game. A few plays prior, Kincaid went up to try and snag an overthrow from Barnes, only to be dragged down by a Cougar defender and land with the full weight of his body squarely on his right shoulder/arm.
He took a little screen pass on first-and-goal from the Washington State 5 and bounced off one defender to pay off the drive with six points. In the process, he took another shot to the same shoulder and landed on it again in the endzone.
Kincaid looked to be in obvious pain, took a bit longer than usual to get up off the turf, and went straight to the medical tent after the play, his arm hanging at his side.
The FS1 broadcast said after the halftime break that Rising was being held out for precautionary reasons, but it seems unlikely Whittingham would try and rest his star quarterback after a bye week on the road in a crucial spot. If Rising was able to play, he would have.
The next few days become very interesting for Utah. Its top playmakers appear to be all kinds of banged up. The next two games are against Arizona and Stanford, but a trip to Oregon looms on Nov. 19.
Utah defense rises up
With a 40-points-per-game offense seriously hamstrung, Utah’s defense answered the call.
Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward completed a high percentage of his throws (27 for 31) and he didn’t have any turnovers, but Utah didn’t let itself get beat in behind anywhere near enough to cause damage. Just about everything was around the line of scrimmage.
Ward was the team’s leading rusher, with 12 carries for 28 yards. Considering he entered Thursday’s contest with negative rushing yardage on the season, Whittingham will probably take that as a win.
Utah got beat a couple times in the first half by Wazzu receiver De’Zhaun Stribling — who finished with four catches for 66 yards — and then on a play at the end of the third to move the Cougars into scoring position. Outside of that, things were largely contained.
Washington State averaged 5.3 yards a play. It was 3-for-10 on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth. The Utes forced a turnover on downs deep in their own territory on Washington State’s first drive of the second half, sandwiched a touchdown drive with a set of three-and-outs, and then limited the Cougars to just a field goal after Jackson’s fumble set them up at the Utah 37.
Van Fillinger and Mo Diabate each had 1.5 sacks. The Utes registered 10 tackles for loss as a team.
Whittingham has been critical of the defense at times this season; they certainly answered the call on Thursday. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to help them escape with a win on a night when no one had their best stuff.
It felt noteworthy that on fourth-and-7 from Washington State’s 30-yard-line, Whittingham and Co. elected to let Barnes throw the ball rather than attempt a field goal or a pooch punt to potentially pin Washington State deep.
As the clock ticked under a minute to play, the Cougars were likely readying to get the ball back with a chance to drive for either the tie or the lead. Instead, Barnes fired away and was rewarded with a pass interference penalty that wiped out a Washington State interception.
Utah, up 21-17 at that point, could have tried a long field goal to make it a seven-point game. But Jadon Redding was the place-kicker for the Utes on the night and he missed a gimme on the opening drive.
He also had a pair of kickoffs in the first half before Jordan Noyes handled both kickoffs in the third quarter. Noyes had been the team’s primary place-kicker so far this year, going 6-for-8. Redding hadn’t attempted a field goal before Thursday night.
And Utah also elected not to punt from the spot, either. Perhaps Whittingham thought the difference in yardage between a failed fourth-down try and a touchback was negligible. Maybe he didn’t have confidence in the ability to pin Washington State deep.
Whatever the reason, you got the sense Thursday night that confidence in the kicking units aren’t exactly high right now.
Something worth monitoring as injuries mount. Utah is operating with very slim margins at the moment.