Utah’s Defense Shines in Conference Victory over Washington State


Jonathan Wang

Utah Football faces Washington State in Pac-12 opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah on Saturday Sept. 25, 2021. (Photo by Jonathan Wang | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Cole Bagley, Sports Editor


Despite their inability to hold onto the football and another regrettable day for the offense, the University of Utah would emerge victorious in their conference opener against Washington State during a Saturday matinee. 

The defense was again relied on heavily as they continually stepped up when it mattered most and propelled the Utes to victory.

Utah’s depth was the name of the game as multiple underclassmen and several replacements made big plays all over the field. Walk-on linebacker Karene Reid would lead the team in total tackles with 15 while freshman Junior Tafuna made several important sacks.

Notably, freshman cornerback Clark Phillips III would record the biggest play of the day, taking an interception back 54-yards to seal the game with just two minutes remaining.

From the get-go it was a defensive showdown to begin Saturday’s contest as neither offense could get any type of footing through the first quarter. Though it wasn’t necessarily due to a lack of production on both sides, the defenses were just really good, especially the Utes.

On the very first drive of the game, the Cougars made some notable ground as they found themselves just outside of the red zone near the 34-yard line. After two attempts to convert a first down, the Utah defensive-line came up big as they stuffed Washington State on third and fourth down, resulting in a turnover of possession. 

Following a very short drive by the Utes and an eventual punt, the Cougars would again march right down the field on multiple pass plays by backup quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. Finding themselves inside the red zone, Guarantano would drop back to pass but significantly under-throw his target right into the arms of Reid on the 12-yard line. Reid would return it 13 yards up to the Utah 25-yard line, beginning what would be a very impressive performance by the young defender.

After another short drive by Utah, the defense would be forced to come up big again as Washington State was inside the red zone and knocking on the door. Luckily for the Utes, junior defensive-end Mika Tafua was campaigning for mayor of Sack Lake City and dropped Guarantano for a 14-yard loss on second down. 

On the ensuing play, the Utes would get another stop, forcing Washington State to settle for a 39-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead early in the second quarter.

While Utah’s offensive struggles would continue, the defense stayed strong, dropping Washington State in the backfield on consecutive plays, courtesy of Malone Mataele and Fua Pututau. 

On the ensuing Utah drive, the offense would finally find a bit of rhythm as Cameron Rising started things off with a 31-yard keeper up the right side and an additional 15-yards due to a face-mask against the defense. After a few pass completions, freshman quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson would check into the game and find the end zone on a two-yard keeper up the middle. 

Following the touchdown, the Cougars would respond with a short field goal and Utah would take a 7-6 lead into the half.

Out of the locker room, Utah’s offensive struggles continued as Micah Bernard fumbled on his own 20-yard line, giving Washington State excellent field position. As the Cougars took over, they would quickly punish the Utes on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Guarantano to De’Zhaun Stribling to take a 13-7 advantage. 

Throughout the remainder of the third quarter and into the fourth, Utah’s offense continued to sputter as they would turn the ball over multiple times, including a fumble by Jackson on the Washington State eight-yard line and another by Chris Curry on the Cougar one-yard line. Overall, the Utes would fumble a total of seven times, turning the ball over on three of those occasions. 

Nevertheless, as Utah’s defense continued to keep them in the game, the offense finally strung together another touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. Junior running back T.J. Pledger was the primary source of offense as he led the drive with multiple carries and capped it off with a 20-yard touchdown run up the middle. 

“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.”

Notably, in addition to Pledger giving the Utes a late 17-13 advantage, he’d also lead the running back room as he finished with 117 yards and one touchdown on 10 carries (11.7 average).

Needing a stop, the Utah defense did what they do best as they not only came up with a critical stop, but freshman cornerback Phillips would intercept Guarantano on the Utah 46-yard line and take it all the way back for six points. This would effectively seal the game as the Cougars simply ran out of time and the Utes emerged victorious 24-13 in a wild afternoon showdown. 

“Credit to our guys for playing the full 60 minutes,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “That’s pretty much what it took. We talked about that all week, fighting for 60 and knowing it might take a full 60, which it pretty much did. We squandered a lot of opportunities for sure. 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 and age of football. That would probably lead the Pac-12 if we could do that every week.”

With the victory, the Utes improve to 2-2 on the season and 1-0 in conference play. Utah will now have time to regroup as they head into their bye week. Following their week off, Utah will travel to Los Angeles to face off against USC in Coliseum on Saturday, Oct. 9 with kick-off TBD. The game will be broadcasted on Fox or FS1.


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