Faced with a fight Washington State team less than two weeks after a season-defining upset USCNo. 14 Utah Utes seemed prepared to endure one of those “Pac-12 After Dark,” which ends in heartbreak.

But while there was some shenanigans going on at the Palouse in the days leading up to Halloween, the Utes managed to survive their tough 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

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

Here are three main thoughts on the match:

Wounded reserves

Utah’s win over the Trojans on Oct. 15 in Salt Lake City may have been costly, judging by who did not do play against Wazzu.

Quarterback Cameron Rebellion was the most notable absentee for the visitors, spending the game in a suit and yellow jersey, walking the touchline. After a career night against the Trojans, the All-Pac-12 signal-caller did warm up before kickoff at Martin Stadium, but was mostly relegated to being a sideline observer. Bryson Barnes (17-of-27, 175 yards, one touchdown) took the reins of the offense.

The Utahns also didn’t have a starting running back Tavion Thomas and saw the sophomore vice Micah Bernard (three carries, one yard) limited after punt. Even worse, against an opposing, pass-happy, top cornerback Clark Phillips III was rocked on the first drive of the second half after a hard tackle.

Perhaps most of all for the coaching staff was watching the star tight end Dalton Kincaid takes a hit after being tackled along the sideline in the third quarter and immediately reaches for his shoulder in pain. He returned to score a short touchdown two plays later, but then headed straight for the injury tent and didn’t return for the next drive.

Dalton Kincaid catches a TD

Bryson Barnes finds Dalton Kincaid for 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, the Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward was able to do just as many dunks and dunks to give his team a chance in the fourth quarter. The The Incarnate Word transfer started the game by making his first 12 attempts and had his first missed attempt just 11 seconds before halftime.

While most of Ward’s passes were short and intermediate, he had a few throws down the field to De’John 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 didn’t always happen by design, as his offensive line struggled against Utah’s pass rush most of the night. Ward was fortunate to only pick up four sacks in the game.

It didn’t help Ward that the Cougars seemed to find ways to shoot themselves in the foot at key times. They committed eight penalties, made questionable fourth downs (0-for-2) and had no interest in running the ball, despite having it all for nearly all four quarters.

Of WSU’s two turnovers, the most notable came just before halftime when they muffed a punt thanks to the ball touching the leg of one of the team’s punters. The Utahns entered the red zone and, as it turned out, would have to settle for a field goal, a targeting penalty on quarterback Watts Brennan Jackson kept the drive alive. With time added and the ball at 2, Jaylon Glover ended up punching it for a touchdown that ended up being critical.

Pac-12, CFP implications

A nationally televised presence with little late-night sports on Thursday could have given Utah a chance to make a small statement ahead of Tuesday’s first set of College Football Playoff rankings. However, despite the injuries and poor performance, this was far from the case. Instead, Kyle Whittingham’s side settled for a struggling effort to win at Pullman for the first time since 2011.

In the process, Utah earned bowl eligibility and remained in the thick of the race to reach Las Vegas for the Pac-12 title game. Heading into the schedule, Utah has two teams at the bottom of the league standings (Arizona and Stanford), both at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but they will have to improve their play against Washington State if they hope to finish as a top-15 team in the eyes of the selection committee.

A win could also challenge the reigning champions’ status as the biggest threat to No.8 Oregon move forward. The Ducks are set for a Pac-12 Championship Game rematch from last season in Eugene on Nov. 19, but they’re excited about the prospect of playing a team that’s down and can’t take advantage of the situation.

However, that will be a concern for another night. Whittingham & Co. will be happy to return to Salt Lake City with a win in their pockets, hoping to continue the recovery of their star players before meeting the Because NixDan Lanning and the Ducks in a few weeks.

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Fisher is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has covered college athletics for nearly two decades for outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @Brian Fisher.

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