SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III snaked his way through the Washington State secondary on an interception return in the waning minutes, his sense of deja vu must have been exhilarating.
The Cougars’ version was quite the opposite.
They made the game closer this time, but the Cougs squandered another seemingly bright opportunity for a win Saturday, allowing two touchdowns in the final five minutes and bowing to the Utes 24-13 in a Pac-12 football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
If the Cougars (1-3, 0-2) are caught in a maze of repetitive themes, Phillips hammered the point home when he returned his pick of Jarrett Guarantano 54 yards for a game-clinching touchdown with 2:19 remaining.
Last year at the same site — just 13 seconds later in the game — Phillips had pulled off a similar pick-6 to cap a 45-28 win.
In that one, the Cougars blew a 21-point lead. This time it was only six. But it was the fifth time in the eight-game Nick Rolovich coaching tenure that they’d lost despite leading at some juncture of the game.
“For the most part, I think we played a lot better this week than we did last week,” said WSU offensive lineman Abe Lucas, referring to a 45-14 loss to USC. “We still have to be able to finish. Utah’s a good, solid team. All credit goes to them. But I thought that we battled very, very hard. Last week’s game, there was no battle in the second half at all.”
Powerless to stop the Cougar slide were top quarterback Jayden de Laura, who’d been held out with his knee injury, and star running back Max Borghi, who went down on an awkward blow on the first play of the second quarter. The two watched the second half in street clothes on the sideline.
Rolovich said X-rays on Borghi came back negative, but he didn’t elaborate.
Guarantano filled in at quarterback, throwing for 248 yards and a touchdown on 25-for-36 passing, but also threw three interceptions. Without de Laura’s mobility, the Cougars were sacked eight times.
“We need to take a hard look at ourselves as offensive coaches,” Rolovich said. “Six points in the (first) half and 13 points total is not good enough. That’s not why we’re here.”
The turnovers were contagious. Utah running backs lost three fumbles but second-stringer TJ Pledger atoned for his teammates’ mistakes with a 20-yard touchdown run that gave Utah a 17-13 lead with 4:53 left.
Guarantano then moved the Cougs to the WSU 41-yard line before apparently crossing wires with receiver Calvin Jackson Jr. and throwing directly to Phillips on the game’s decisive play.
The Cougars dominated possession time in the first half but again were left lamenting lost opportunities. They turned the ball over on downs at the Utah 34-yard line on their first possession. On their second, Guarantano directed a 63-yard drive to the 19 before getting intercepted by Karene Reid.
But the WSU defense kept giving the Cougs chances. Ron Stone Jr. caused a Utah fumble on the first play of the second half, and Guarantano capitalized with a 25-yard scoring strike to De’Zhaun Stribling that put Wazzu up 13-7.
“They played great — they played good enough for us to win that game,” Rolovich said of his defense.
After the Utes (2-2, 1-0) closed to within 13-10, stellar Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd intercepted Guarantano in spectacular fashion, batting the ball to himself in the offensive backfield.
By that point, the game had become a circus. The Utes blew a chance to take the lead when freshman quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson, running a special option package, fumbled at the goal line on a hit by Travion Brown. WSU’s Jaylen Watson made the recovery.
Later, Jadon Redding hooked a 31-yard field-goal try to keep the Cougars in the lead late in the third quarter.
Making his first start for the Utes was sophomore quarterback Cameron Rising, who was 13-for-23 passing for 137 yards. Pledger rushed for 117 yards.
“After the game, I was holding my daughter and had tears in my eyes,” Pledger said. “College football is not easy. You go through ups and downs, and the ones who are able to remain steady and just keep putting their best foot forward every day, they end up being successful.”
For the Cougars, Deon McIntosh rushed for 59 yards, Borghi for 42. Stribling made six catches for 93 yards, and Stone finished three tackles for loss, including a sack.
Washington St. 0 6 7 0 — 13Utah 0 7 3 14 — 24
WSU: FG Janikowski 39, 10:34.
UTAH: J.Jackson 2 run (Redding kick), 4:14.
WSU: FG Janikowski 20, :00.
WSU: Stribling 26 pass from Guarantano (Janikowski kick), 13:40.
UTAH: FG Redding 28, 9:15.
UTAH: Pledger 20 run (Noyes kick), 4:43.
UTAH: Phillips 54 interception return (Noyes kick), 2:19.
First downs 22 19
Total Net Yards 318 349
Rushes-yards 37-70 33-212
Passing 248 137
Punt Returns 1-5 2-31
Kickoff Returns 0-0 1-15
Interceptions Ret. 0-0 3-67
Comp-Att-Int 25-38-3 13-23-0
Sacked-Yards Lost 8-59 1-9
Punts 4-50.0 3-47.7
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 4-3
Penalties-Yards 7-55 4-40
Time of Possession 36:53 23:07
RUSHING: Washington St., McIntosh 13-59, Borghi 6-42, N.Watson 1-1, Victor 1-0, Cooper 1-(minus 7), Guarantano 15-(minus 25). Utah, Pledger 10-117, Rising 5-32, Jackson 4-21, Bernard 7-19, Covey 1-14, Curry 2-7, Kincaid 1-4, Thomas 1-1, (Team) 2-(minus 3).
PASSING: Washington St., Guarantano 25-36-3-248, Cooper 0-2-0-0. Utah, Rising 13-23-0-137.
RECEIVING: Washington St., Stribling 6-93, Harris 6-49, Ollie 5-45, McIntosh 4-16, Ca.Jackson 2-19, Hobert 1-14, Victor 1-12. Utah, Kuithe 4-25, Fotheringham 3-33, Covey 2-8, Kincaid 1-27, Vele 1-18, Enis 1-14, Bernard 1-12.
MISSED FIELD GOALS: Utah, Redding 31.
Utah 24, WSU 13
Stars of the game
T.J. PLEDGER of the Utes rushed for 117 yards and a go-ahead 20-yard touchdown with 4:43 remaining. Utah linebacker DEVIN LLOYD tallied a sack, three tackles for loss and a spectacular interception in the offensive backfield, while KARENE REID collected 15 tackles, a sack and an interception. For the Cougars, DE’ZHAUN STRIBLING caught six passes for 93 yards and a touchdown, and RON STONE JR. had three TFLs, including a sack.
With the Utes’ other running backs having trouble hanging on to the football, Utah inserted Pledger, a junior who rushed for 33 yards on the go-ahead 72-yard drive in the fourth quarter.
The Cougars play California at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Berkeley, Calif.