Utah running back TJ Pledger, center, gets tackled by Washington State defensive back Jaylen Watson as others celebrates during touchdown of an NCAA college football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 in Salt Lake City. Utah won the game 24-13. (Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)
SALT LAKE CITY — In Utah’s season-opening win over Weber State, running back TJ Pledger made a costly error that ultimately buried him in the depth chart.
On the goal line, Pledger dropped an easy walk-in touchdown pass and Utah was forced to kick a field goal. It was the type of play that didn’t ultimately ruin Utah’s chances in the game, but one that hurt the Oklahoma transfer’s opportunity in a running back room where four backs are competing for the lead back role.
It was just one play, but it led to Pledger dropping in the depth chart for the next couple games. In his place, Tavion Thomas and Micah Bernard earned the bulk of Utah’s carries going forward.
But on Saturday, in a game where Utah fumbled the ball away seven times (Washington State recovered three of them), it was Pledger that escaped without a turnover and helped lead Utah to a 24-13 win over Washington State.
With Utah trailing by 3 points in a lackluster and turnover-ridden conference opener, Pledger escaped for a 59-yard run to put Utah deep in Washington State territory. The junior running back held onto the ball like his life depended on it — and in some way, his playing life did.
Pledger said he held the football tight, knowing that it’s “always the guy you don’t see.” Pledger simply wanted to keep his job and show Utah the impact he could have on the field.
The drive ultimately ended with another turnover — an end zone fumble by running back Chris Curry — but it was the start of something positive for the Utes in a game where mistakes defined the day.
On the ensuing Utah possession, though, Pledger was the lead back — Bernard left the game with an injury and Thomas fumbled the ball away after a history of too many dropped footballs this season — and helped the offense move the ball. Pledger eventually broke free and went untouched for a 20-yard rushing touchdown to give the Utes the lead late in the fourth quarter.
That, mixed with a pick-six score from Clark Phillips III shortly after, sealed the victory for the Utes and gave Utah (2-2, 1-0) its first win of conference play this season.
“TJ came in and really did a nice job. The long of 60 really was the big one, but he was very consistent,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said of Pledger’s performance. “But overall, we’ve got to really kind of hone in on that running game and find out who’s going to get the — be the primary ball carrier and get the carries.”
Pledger led Utah with 117 rushing yards and one touchdown on 10 carries in a game where Utah finished with 213 total rushing yards. And while the stats were important to Pledger and Utah, it was more about the personal victory for Pledger and his moment he got to show his talent after an early-season mistake.
“After the game I just, I was holding my daughter and I had some tears in my eyes because it’s not easy — college football is not easy,” Pledger said. “You go through ups and downs. And I feel like the ones that are able to remain steady and just keep putting their best foot forward every day are going to end up being successful.
“So it meant a lot to me today, and I’m just thankful for my coaches for always believing in me and players and our teammates that keep me going.”
Pledger played in 30 games at Oklahoma from 2018-20 before electing to transfer to Utah in an effort to get more playing time. And with Utah being a run-heavy offense, it seemed to be a perfect fit.
But Pledger found himself in a similar position as Oklahoma.
“I’ve been through a lot in college, and the one thing I know is you want to stay ready before you get ready,” Pledger said. “So that was big for me, just being patient and understanding that my time will come one day.”
That’s why he says he prepares each week like he’s RB1.
Saturday’s performance may not guarantee Pledger any extra playing time, but it was a glimpse into the type of effort Pledger is willing make to have an impact on the game. And while Pledger is working for more playing time, it means something more when he gets on the field.
Pledger plays for his daughter, who was born over the summer and is nearly three months old now.
“That means everything to me, you know, that’s my motivation,” he said ahead of the season’s start. “I just wake up every day thinking about her, going to sleep thinking about her and understanding that if I continue to do what I got to do, her life is going to be set up based off of how I perform and do what I do.”
So while Saturday was a moment for Pledger to celebrate for his own personal success in a team win, it was also a moment for Pledger to celebrate his future and the potential it could mean for his family. But as he learned in Week 1, there’s no guarantee in college football.
“We’ve got to figure out what the pecking order is and what that position group needs to look like and is gonna look like,” Whittingham said.
Pledger hopes he’s there ready to contribute when Utah resumes play in two weeks on the road against USC.