FRESNO, Calif. — Besides being Utah’s first road game and final non-conference contest of the season, Saturday’s 45-24 win at Fresno State also served as the 21st-ranked Utes’ final tuneup before Pac-12 play.
“We don’t really break it down like that, but that’s exactly what it is,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said during preparations for the trip.
Although the nine remaining games on the schedule are all within the conference — starting next weekend at No. 12 Oregon — Whittingham insisted the focus over the past week was on Fresno State and “trying to prepare the best we can for this one.”
The approach paid off as the Utes overcame adversity in the form of playing without injured quarterback Travis Wilson and defensive end Hunter Dimick — as well as losing a fumble on the opening kickoff — to prevail and open a season 3-0 for the second consecutive year.
Running back Devontae Booker led the way with 156 yards rushing and two touchdowns. He also had 56 yards receiving on a team-high five catches.
The senior from Sacramento vowed to “put on a show” earlier in the week and didn’t disappoint. He cited family and friends making the trip to see him play and a slight by Fresno State in the recruiting process as extra motivation going into the game.
Things didn’t start off on a positive note for the Utes, however, in Utah’s first visit in nearly 18 years to Bulldog Stadium. The Utes lost the opening kickoff when Boobie Hobbs fumbled the return and Fresno State recovered it on the Utah 17-yard line.
Although the Bulldogs managed to gain only one yard on the next three plays, they cashed in on the takeaway with a 35-yard field goal by Kody Kroening.
Trailing 3-0 just 55 seconds into the game, the Utes pulled even on the ensuing possession. A 33-yard field goal by Andy Phillips capped a lengthy 60-yard drive — featuring three third-down conversions and one on fourth — that consisted of 19 plays and took 9:58 off the clock.
Utah’s defense put the next points on the board. Defensive end Kylie Fitts sacked Fresno State quarterback Chason Virgil and forced a fumble. Defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu scooped it up and ran 37 yards for a touchdown. Phillips added the PAT as the Utes took a 10-3 lead with 2:31 remaining in the first quarter.
Utah extended its advantage to 17-3 by halftime. A 30-yard touchdown run by Booker highlighted another lengthy march by the Utes. This one covered 89 yards on 16 plays, lasting just under seven minutes.
Booker scored again in the third quarter. He reached the end zone on a 7-yard run. Phillips followed with the extra point to give Utah more breathing room at 24-3 exactly nine minutes into the half. It was the third long scoring drive — nine plays and 93 yards — directed by quarterback Kendal Thompson, who started in place of Wilson.
Thompson, though, had his troubles as well. He was intercepted at the goal line in the third quarter and his fumble on the Utah 32-yard line in the fourth. The latter eventually led to Fresno State’s first touchdown. The Bulldogs scored on a 6-yard pass from Zach Greenlee to Josiah Blandin.
That deficit reduction, though, didn’t last long.
Utah’s special teams scored twice by returning a pair of kicks for touchdowns. Cory Butler-Byrd opened the barrage with a 98-yard kickoff return and Britain Covey followed with a 77-yard punt return less than two minutes later. Phillips contributed PATs to both as the Utes increased their lead to 38-10 with 9:12 remaining.
Fresno State responded quickly — though it wasn’t enough to alter the outcome. The Bulldogs scored a pair of touchdowns, recovering an onside kick between the scores, to make it a 14-point game with 7:02 to go. They crossed the goal line on scoring strikes from Greenlee to Jamire Jordan (82 yards) and Da’Mari Scott (32 yards).
Utah countered with a final TD with 14 seconds left to play. Thompson connected with tight end Harrison Handley in the back of the end zone.