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Late Bloomers

Utes score 23 points in the final 17 minutes for 37-16 win over Lobos

New Mexico came into Rice-Eccles Stadium on a sunny Saturday afternoon with the second-best rush defense in the country, the best running back in the Mountain West Conference and a tricky little handoff on the fly that at least looks confusing.

Utah pretty much stopped all three things the Lobos do well, but it took Utah's offense until midway through the third quarter to really find itself.

From there, Utah broke from a two-point deficit, 14-16, to score 23 points in the final 17 minutes of the game and start the 2001 Mountain West Conference season off with a 37-16 win over the Lobos. The Utes are now 3-1, 1-0; UNM fell to 1-3, 0-1.

"That wins games. If we keep on playing good in the second half, we're going to be all right," said senior receiver Cliff Russell, who made maybe the game's two biggest plays, one to take the Utes into the halftime locker room with a 14-7 lead and the other to help Utah get the lead back at 17-16. "It's all determination," he said.

Utah's defense had been so stout through Utah's slow first-half offense that it forced the Lobos into a change of quarterback and a change of offense five minutes into the second quarter. "They retreated from their game plan," said Utah linebacker Sheldon Deckart, credited with six tackles including two sacks for 11 yards, two pass breakups and a forced fumble.

"I don't think they came into the game with the right game plan. They're a big, strong, physical team, and they didn't use their tool (Baxter)," Deckart observed.

Some of the determination of which Russell spoke was manufactured in the halftime break. "We did a lot of ranting and raving in the locker room to get ourselves up, We gotta play 60 minutes," said Russell. His 46-yard pass reception for a touchdown from backup Ryan Breska just before the half restored Utah's lead. His 34-yard reception from starter Lance Rice despite being tugged on by the defensive back made possible the third-quarter drive for a Ryan Kaneshiro field goal that overcame the 16-14 lead New Mexico had following a safety.

"That big throw to Cliff on third-and-something (third-and-17), that's a huge play because that's the difference in the game. All of a sudden they don't have as much enthusiasm because you complete the big play, and then we get the power-O on them and let those big backs run," said Utah coach Ron McBride.

The big backs were Utah's 223-pound Dameon Hunter, who had his third straight career game with 177 yards rushing, 13 better than last week at Indiana, and 230-pound Adam Tate, who finished with 76 yards. Each scored twice. Hunter ran for 103 yards in the second half, Tate for 72. New Mexico's even-bigger back, 250-pound Jarrod Baxter, got 95 yards on 15 carries, about 16 less than his Mountain West-leading average. He scored once. Hunter's now averaging 126.25 yards and Baxter 107.25.

"Dameon has been possessed," McBride said.

"That's basically what we wanted to do — break the spirit of their rushing defense, and we did," said Hunter. New Mexico gave up an average of 0.9 yard per running play until Saturday, though that was against three pass-first teams. "The line blocked tremendously. I just took the creases and went downhill with it. I'm hungry. I want it all, and that's what I drive for."

A first glance at the statistics makes it look like an absolutely dominant Ute performance. They rushed for 255 yards against a team that had given up 81 total through its first three games, passed for another 210 and had the ball 34 1/2 minutes. Utah's defense held the Lobos to 4-for-17 on third downs and 0-for-1 on fourth and gave them 12 first downs in the game.

But the dreadful first half featured a two-team total of three lost fumbles, two interceptions and two missed field goals.

New Mexico replaced a 3-for-11 Rudy Caamano with Kelly Casey after Antwoine Sanders intercepted Caamano on the first drive of the second quarter. Coach Rocky Long wasn't sure after the game if that's a permanent change.

It threw the Utes a bit. "We didn't have a snap of him on tape," said defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham, "but as soon as he got in the game, the pressure went up a little bit. We wanted to get in his face. He sure threw a strike on that first play, as good a ball as you can throw." Kelly's first NCAA pass was a 40-yarder, but two plays later, he lost a fumble when he ran into his own man on the fly handoff, and Baxter lost a fumble the next series.

Utah had a similar dyslexia. A raw start by Rice brought in Breska with 7:09 left in the first half. His fumbled handoff at the Ute 9-yard line gave New Mexico its first score. But the 46-yard Breska/Russell touchdown hookup, Breska beating the blitz by a blink and paying the price for the dumpoff pass, gave Utah its lead right back.

Rice played the second half, and after getting caught for a New Mexico safety, he also went to Russell for the 34-yard play to keep alive a drive that led to a field goal and the 17-16 Ute lead.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com