As his players and staff left the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham greeted many of them with a smile and a handshake.
Nine games into a topsy-turvy season, the Utes may have finally righted their ship. Saturday's 43-13 victory over Wyoming was their best overall effort to date.
"We just wanted to come out here and make a statement that this team will never wilt and will never quit," said quarterback Brian Johnson. "So we came out here and did what we had to do."
Johnson directed an offense that was turnover-free in racking up 563 yards and 25 first downs. The sophomore contributed what Whittingham called Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the week numbers.
Johnson completed 32-of-45 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed for a team-high 67 yards and a score in a game in which rushing leader Quinton Ganther was sidelined with a sore knee.
"Quinton is a big part of what we do," Johnson said. "But we have guys who can step up and play just as well when we need them."
WIde receiver John Madsen rose to the occasion and hauled in a career-high 12 catches. Ten other Utes also had receptions. In addition, four ball carriers joined Johnson with positive ground yardage.
Wyoming entered the game with the conference's top defense but wound up letting Utah convert on seven trips inside the red zone. The Cowboys weren't much better offensively. They turned the ball over three times and managed just 15 first downs. Star receiver Jovon Bouknight was kept in check with just four catches for 43 yards. He was covered most of the night by safety Eric Weddle, who led the Utes with nine tackles.
"I think Weddle on Bouknight was the difference in the game. There were a lot of good things in this game, a lot of young guys played well for us," Whittingham said after the Utes improved to 5-4 overall and 3-3 in conference play. "Our defense created turnovers, which is the second-most important stat next to the final score."
Wyoming coach Joe Glenn knows all about turning the ball over. The Cowboys (4-5, 2-4) have had 17 miscues in their current four-game losing skid.
"We didn't see this one coming. I'm completely shocked by our performance, but I give Utah credit," Glenn said. "We need to figure out what to do. We just flat-out got beat. I'm at a loss for what to say.
"Eric Weddle did a great job on defense taking out our ace. They were too much for us," he continued. "They were too much for us, but I wouldn't have dreamed that we would have lost by 30 points. We are going in the wrong direction this season, and something needs to change."
Utah has reversed its fortunes with two straight wins entering season-ending games with New Mexico and BYU. A bowl bid likely weighs in the balance.
The changing tide also turned in the game as Utah rode a wave or two of momentum, especially in the first half.
A late 12-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Madsen gave the Utes a 20-6 advantage at halftime.
The duo teamed for three completions in a six-play drive that covered 60 yards in just 56 seconds. It followed a poor Wyoming punt and a strong Utah defensive stand. The Utes sacked quarterback Corey Bramlet twice — Steve Fifita and Martail Burnett combined on the first one, Burnett and Kelly Talavou on the second — in three plays to set up what wound up being a 20-yard punt by the Cowboys.
Burnett, who also had a fumble recovery by game's end, credited defensive coordinator Gary Andersen for just letting them go after Bramlet.
"It paid off," Burnett said. "He held the ball when we got to him."
While Wyoming was forced to kick the ball away on all three of its offensive series in the second quarter, Utah managed three consecutive scores.
A 45-yard field goal by Dan Beardall preceded the first of two straight touchdown connections between Johnson and Madsen. An 11-yarder came two minutes before the encore with 10.1 seconds remaining in the half.
Wyoming held leads of 3-0 and 6-3 in the first quarter thanks to kicker Deric Yaussi, who made field goals from 39 and 47 yards out. Between those scores, Beardall found the mark from 37 yards for Utah.
The Utes were penalized only once over the first two quarters in pulling away from the Cowboys. Utah's offense was 3-for-3 inside the red zone. Wyoming, meanwhile, was denied any opportunities and had only 56 yards of total offense in the second quarter.
Utah's momentum continued after the break. The Utes increased their lead to 33-6 on a pair of 3-yard touchdown plays — a run by Johnson and a throw to Derrek Richards.
Wyoming did, however, counter with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Bramlet to C.J. Brewers to close the gap a bit.
It didn't last long, though.
With 11:40 remaining in the game, Johnson and Ameen Shaheen combined on a one-yard scoring strike that made it 40-13. Midway through the fourth quarter, Beardall added a 22-yard field goal to cap all scores in the contest. The kick, his 11th consecutive make, equals a school record set by Andre Guardi in 1985.