WACO, Texas — On a scorching hot day where nothing was working when the Utes had the ball, Utah’s defense kept giving its offense a chance to put together a drive in the second half.
It took until nearly the end of the game, but Utah’s anemic offense scored its first touchdown of the day when it was most needed, and Utah escaped McLane Stadium with a 20-13 win over Baylor on Saturday to improve to 2-0.
Usual starting quarterback Cam Rising’s absence was glaring throughout the first 50 minutes of the contest.
Rising, who practiced without limitations all week but missed his second straight game while still recovering from his ACL injury sustained in the Rose Bowl last season, made the trip to Waco and participated in early warmups in shorts and a T-shirt before the game, with a brace on his leg.
When Utah returned dressed in uniform for warmups about 45 minutes prior to game time, however, Rising was still in street clothes.
Bryson Barnes got the starting nod again, and aimed to lead the Utes to a road win as the starter for the second time in a row after he did enough against Washington State in 2022 to secure a win.
It didn’t go as well this time.
Barnes was 6 of 19 for 71 yards with no touchdowns and an interception, which came on Utah’s third drive of the game. With Barnes primarily at quarterback through three quarters, the Utes just could not move the ball.
Utah’s most successful drive of the first half, which resulted in a field goal, featured a 22-yard Nate Johnson pass and a 44-yard Ja’Quinden Jackson run, but stalled in the red zone after a holding penalty on Michael Mokofisi, an incompletion by Barnes, a 5-yard rush by Barnes and an inexplicable designed keeper for Johnson on 3rd and 15, which resulted in a Cole Becker field goal, Utah’s first points of the day.
Likewise, Utah’s second red zone trip of the afternoon, late in the third quarter, was set up by a Zemaiah Vaughn interception that gave Utah the ball on the Baylor 37 yard-line.
The drive started promising but ended in disappointment for the traveling Utah fans, sweltering in the Texas heat.
Another holding penalty, a sack, an incompletion by Barnes, then a rush by Barnes on 3rd and 21 after he didn’t see anyone open stalled the drive, resulting in a field goal.
Baylor led 13-6 after Becker’s 46-yard field goal with 4:05 left in the third quarter.
Utah’s defensive line was outplayed by Baylor’s reinvigorated offensive line in the first half, and its secondary let a few deep passes over their heads in the opening two quarters.
After halftime, though, the defense looked fresh, playing reenergized.
In a game that felt like the Utah of a decade ago, the Utes’ defense allowed a field goal on Baylor’s first drive of the second half, then asserted itself, as Utah didn’t allow another point the rest of the game.
Morgan Scalley’s defense was practically pleading with Andy Ludwig’s offense to score a touchdown, and after yet another failed drive at the start of the fourth quarter, featuring three straight incompletions by Barnes — the last on 4th-and-10 — something had to be done.
Utah couldn’t stick with Barnes under center.
The two-quarterback experiment featuring Barnes and Johnson — which worked as well as it possibly could have, given the situation, against Florida — fell flat on Saturday.
Johnson had a couple passes in the first three quarters, including the aforementioned 22-yard completion. Aside from that, when Johnson came in, Baylor knew it was going to be a run, and the Bears were all over it. Johnson was stuffed on practically every rushing play though three quarters.
When Barnes got a little groove going, it seemed like Johnson would come in, and vice versa.
Faced with a vital drive after its defense forced yet another 3-and-out, Utah had to pick a quarterback — and stick with him.
Barnes wasn’t generating much hope — he seemed to be a second late making decisions and getting the ball out all game — so Utah rolled out Johnson with 10 minutes left in the game, Utah down by seven.
As Johnson took the field, he didn’t have to glance at the sideline to see if Barnes was going to be subbed in. This was his drive, with the weight of the game on his shoulders.
“Things weren’t going well the whole game and coach called my number,” Johnson said. “I just stepped in, trusted the game plan, trusted the calls, trusted our offense.”
The redshirt freshman engineered an eight-minute, 15-play, 88-yard drive to tie the game with two minutes remaining.
He linked up with freshman wide receiver Mikey Matthews three times on the game-tying drive, including an 18-yard gain which got Utah in the red zone.
Facing 3rd and 7 from the Baylor 7-yard-line, Johnson’s passing threat that permeated the drive allowed him to surprise the Bears on the crucial down, and he rushed up the middle for a Utah touchdown to tie the game.
“Well, it should give him a lot of confidence and we’ve got confidence in Nate. It’s just a situation where who gives you the best chance to win,” Whittingham said.
Utah’s defense was asked for yet another stop.
The unit did one better.
On 3rd and 16, Lander Barton hit Bears quarterback Sawyer Robertson as he was throwing. The ball went straight to Cole Bishop, who picked it off, setting Utah up on Baylor’s 29 yard-line.
“Later on in the game, we knew we needed to get a takeaway,” Bishop said.
Jackson’s rushing touchdown a few plays later was wiped away by a holding call, but it turned out to be good for Utah, which burned more time off the clock since Baylor was out of timeouts.
The Bears basically let Jaylon Glover score the go-ahead touchdown with 17 seconds left to leave time for one more drive.
Jackson, who has been dealing with a nagging injury from fall camp, looked better against Baylor, rushing 19 times for 129 yards.
“I’m back my home state and I got a lot of people here so I have to put on a show,” Jackson said.
Glover, who took the No. 2 back spot with Micah Bernard out for the season with an injury, spelled Jackson with 40 yards and a touchdown. Both backs were spurred by an offensive line that got much better in the second half.
“I think our key to the game was our play in the line of scrimmage in the second half,” Whittingham said.
The game looked to basically be in hand for Utah. All the Utes had to do was just not let a pass get over their heads.
That’s exactly what happened.
Robertson threw a 47-yard bomb to Hal Presley, who got behind Miles Battle, out of position on the play, leaving just one second left.
One play to decide the game, from the Utah 22-yard line.
Scalley sent a blitz. Robertson, with two defenders in his face, lobbed up a pass to the corner of the end zone.
There looked to be contact between Battle and receiver Ketron Jackson Jr., but no flag appeared.
One thing is certain — Utah needs Rising back as soon as possible to reach its goal of a Pac-12 championship.
“We get Cam back at some point, hopefully this week, but I’ve been crossing my fingers for a couple weeks now,” Whittingham said.
It took two games, but after a close battle throughout fall camp, Utah has found its backup quarterback. Should Rising not return to action soon, Johnson has to be the guy going forward.
“Nate took a big step forward and he’s going to be a better quarterback because of this performance and we’re excited about his future here,” Whittingham said.
Johnson finished 6 of 7 passing for 82 yards and added 32 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Exhausted from field conditions of 130 degrees, Utah staggered over to its tunnel, singing the fight song with the Ute fans that made their presence known throughout the game.
Missing Rising, Bernard, tight end Brant Kuithe, linebacker Karene Reid, defensive tackle Simote Pepa and defensive end Connor O’Toole, Utah found a way to win on the road.
It certainly wasn’t the prettiest win Utah’s ever had, but it counts all the same.