No. 14 Utah wins to stay in Pac-12 title hunt as star QB Cameron Rising sits

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Bryan Fischer

College Football Writer

Facing a feisty Washington State team less than two weeks after a season-defining upset of USC, the No. 14 Utah Utes seemed primed to endure one of those “Pac-12 After Dark” specials that ends with a heartbreaking loss.

But while there were a handful of shenanigans a few days prior to Halloween on the Palouse, the Utes managed to survive their tricky test against the Cougars, winning 21-17 on FS1 to move one week closer to defending their Pac-12 Championship at the end of the regular season. 

Highlights: Utah holds off Washington State

Highlights: Utah holds off Washington State

No. 14 Utah defeated Washington State 21-17 on Thursday night, as backup quarterback Bryson Barnes passed for 175 yards and a TD.

Here are three key thoughts on the matchup:

Injured reserves

Utah’s win over the Trojans on Oct. 15 in Salt Lake City may have been a costly one judging by who didn’t play against Wazzu.

Quarterback Cameron Rising was the most notable absentee for the visitors, spending the game with a headset and yellow jersey on while pacing the sidelines. Coming off a career night against the Trojans, the All-Pac-12 signal-caller did warm up some before kickoff at Martin Stadium, but was mostly relegated to being a bystander as walk-on Bryson Barnes (17-of-27, 175 yards, one touchdown) was given the reins of the offense.

The Utes were also missing starting running back Tavion Thomas and saw sophomore deputy Micah Bernard (three carries, one yard) limited after getting banged up. To make matters worse against a pass-happy opponent, top cornerback Clark Phillips III was shaken up on the first drive of the second half after a hard tackle.

Maybe most concerning of all for the coaching staff was seeing star tight end Dalton Kincaid take a hit after a catch along the sidelines in the third quarter and immediately reach for his shoulder in pain. He returned to score a short touchdown two plays later, but went straight for the injury tent afterward and did not return for the ensuing drive.

Dalton Kincaid snags TD

Dalton Kincaid snags TD

Bryson Barnes finds Dalton Kincaid on a 5-yard touchdown to put Utah up 21-7 against Washington State on Thursday night.

Close but not close enough

While the low-scoring affair didn’t include much offense, Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward was able to do just enough dinking and dunking his way down the field to give his team a shot in the fourth quarter. The Incarnate Word transfer started off the game by completing his first 12 attempts and didn’t throw his first incompletion until 11 seconds before halftime.

Though most of Ward’s passes were of the short and intermediate variety, he did have a few shots down the field to De’Zhaun Stribling (66 yards, one touchdown) and led the team in rushing with 28 yards and a score. The dual-threat’s movement in and around the pocket was not always by design, however, as his offensive line struggled most of the night against Utah’s pass rush. Ward was lucky to only take four sacks in the game. 

It didn’t help Ward that the Cougs seemed to find ways of shooting themselves in the foot at key moments throughout. They committed eight penalties, made questionable fourth-down calls (0-for-2) and didn’t have any interest in running the ball despite things being close pretty much all four quarters.

Of WSU’s two turnovers, the most notable one came just before the halftime break, when they muffed a punt thanks to the ball grazing the leg of one of the team’s gunners. The Utes proceeded to drive into the red zone and, after it appeared they would have to settle for a field goal, a targeting penalty on Wazzu defender Brennan Jackson kept the drive alive. With the added time and the ball at the 2, Jaylon Glover wound up punching it in for a touchdown that proved to be critical in the end. 

Pac-12, CFP implications

Being on national TV with little sports competition late Thursday night could have offered Utah an opportunity to make a bit of a statement ahead of the first set of College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday. Between the injuries and substandard play, however, that was far from the case. Kyle Whittingham’s squad instead settle for a gritty effort to win in Pullman for the first time since 2011. 

In the process, the Utes became bowl eligible and remained in the thick of the race to make it to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 title game. Coming up on the schedule, Utah has two teams near the bottom of the league standings (Arizona and Stanford), both at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but will have to improve upon their play against Washington State if they harbor any hopes of being a top-15 team in the eyes of the selection committee.

The win may also cast doubt on the reigning champions’ status as the biggest threat for No. 8 Oregon moving forward. The Ducks are set to host the Pac-12 Championship Game rematch from last season in Eugene on Nov. 19, but have to be excited at the prospect of playing a team that is both beat up and not able to take advantage of the situation.

Those will be concerns for another night, however. Whittingham & Co. will be happy to limp back to Salt Lake City with a victory in their pockets, hoping for continued recovery for their star players ahead of that meeting with Bo Nix, Dan Lanning and the Ducks in a few weeks.

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Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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