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Utes hang on

Utah defense shines while offense struggles

Oregon isn't going to be shaking in its cleats awaiting the Utes in Eugene next week.

Utah's new offense lined up far differently than the old, with two backs and multiple ways to display both them and the receivers, but it had a hard time completing passes, a lot like the old one, Saturday night in Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The quality Ute running backs, however, expanded in number from two to three, and the defense picked up where it left off last year when it was the best in the Mountain West, and Utah made off with a 23-19 win over Utah State in the season opener for both clubs.

The Aggies, held to two field goals for the first 57 minutes of the game, partly because of five USU turnovers, scored with 2:29 left on a 16-yard pass from Jose Fuentes to walk-on receiver Kevin Curtis and again with no time left on a 64-yard punt return by Roger Fernandez to make the final look closer than the game had played.

With Utah blanketing Emmett White (17-for81 rushing, 6-for-14 receiving), Curtis caught 11 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown, accounting for well more than half the Aggie offense.

"A win is a win. Obviously we can improve," said Utah sophomore quarterback Lance Rice, now 3-1 as a starter but only 16-for-32 passing for 147 yards, overthrown passes, especially to open receivers in or near the end zone, being a real problem for him.

"I've got to take the blame," he said, adding the numerous overthrows came because "I was a little anxious to make a play and tried to aim the ball. I've got to just throw it."

He said he was so surprised to see senior speed receiver Cliff Russell so

wide open in the end zone on Utah's first drive of the second half that, "I was trying to be too perfect." He said he should have zipped the ball toward Russell but instead put some air under it.

While Rice struggled with his passes, coach Ron McBride said he did well at sizing up situations, calling the right audibles, calling timeout when needed and being "mentally alert. He had good poise in the huddle," McBride said.

Running backs Adam Tate, Marty Johnson and Dameon Hunter combined for 213 yards and two touchdowns and did most of their dirty work up the middle behind an offensive line that performed as expected.

"The offensive line is what set it off. They opened big holes, and we just popped through them," said Tate, who scored Utah's first touchdown of 2001 with 3:54 left in the first quarter to give Utah its first lead of the night, 7-3. Hunter started ahead of Tate, last year's starter and a second-team All-Mountain West back, but on Tate's first series, late in the half, he carried five straight times gaining 38 yards, then ran in from 7 yards out after two Hunter runs worth 11 yards finished the setup.

Tate finished with 76 yards and a score and a 5.1 average.

Johnson, who bruised ribs midway through the second half and went for X-rays, carried six times for 95 yards and a touchdown, a 15.8 per-carry average thanks to a 67-yard sprint that preceded his 4-yard touchdown run on a pitchout with 7:29 left in the first half. Hunter gained another 60 yards on 17 carries.

"I'm really happy with the runners, obviously," McBride said. "We have three guys that can play."

Five, said Tate, noting some who didn't even get into the game.

Kicker Ryan Kaneshiro, much-maligned since some misses as a freshman but solid in the last eight games of last season, scored the rest of Utah's points, 2-for-3 on field goals and good on both PATs. One was blocked, but that was likely the line's fault for letting Jorge Tapia cleanly through the middle.

Utah's defense, which compensated for new cornerbacks by switching junior-college transfer safety Antwoine Sanders to the deep post to help the corners and used its hyperactive linebackers to shut down the Aggies' screen-pass game, was on USU coach Mick Dennehy's mind. "Utah has a great defense. We matched up well, but we just couldn't put it together," he said. "Our main option was the screen, and Utah did a great job defending it. We just couldn't run the screen."

"I had a lovely night tonight," said Sanders, who made two of Utah's three interceptions, returning one for 52 yards in his first NCAA game. "We have a lot of athleticism and speed, and we did the job."

The other interception was by senior corner Yohance Scott, who briefly had lost his starting job to freshman Bo Nagahi but got it back late in the week.

The Utes recovered two Aggie fumbles on special teams, both deep in USU territory, in the last seven minutes of the first half, but all they got out of it was a field goal. After the first Aggie fumble gave them the ball at the 21, the Ags blocked the field-goal try. The Utes also failed to score following the interceptions.

"We're going to have to be a lot better football team," McBride said, miffed at the late letup that allowed USU two touchdowns and thinking ahead to Saturday's date at No. 7 Oregon, which won 31-28 at Wisconsin Saturday night.


E-mail: lham@desnews.com