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Red letter day — 'New-look' Utes hold on to hold off 'Cats

Kyle Whittingham said it was like having "a big, giant piano" taken off his back.

Utah's 27-24 victory over Arizona not only gave him a successful head coaching debut, it also extended the Utes' winning streak to a school-record 17 games.

They did so without former coach Urban Meyer and departed stars like Alex Smith.

"It's huge because a lot of changes happened over the summer," said junior safety Eric Weddle. "But the accountability of this team and the work ethic, it didn't change at all. We come out here and give 100 percent."

It was needed against an Arizona team that is much-improved from a year ago when Utah prevailed 23-6 in Tucson.

"We won the turnover battle. That was the key," Whittingham said. "That was probably the biggest factor. Same thing as when we played last year. That was huge."

The Utes entered the fourth quarter with a 27-17 edge. Arizona, however, marched downfield with a sustained drive that covered 60 yards on 11 plays while taking 4:14 off the clock. A 1-yard plunge by Gilbert Harris on fourth down tightened the score with 9:20 left to play.

It stayed that way until Casey Evans' interception with 5.9 seconds remaining on the Utah 42. The play closed the book on a game that kept most of the Rice-Eccles Stadium crowd of 45,528 (a season-opening record) and an ESPN audience in their seats until the very end.

"This brings confidence to us," said quarterback Brian Johnson, who completed 19-of-30 passes for 220 yards in his first collegiate start. " They are a tough team and we are just happy to have done well in front of a sellout crowd and on national TV."

The Utes forced Arizona to punt with 3:16 to go and were able to run down the clock following runs of 18 and 27 yards by Quinton Ganther, who carried the ball on all five of Utah's final plays.

"This is what I asked for. I asked to be the leader of this team, and my teammates believed in me," said Ganther, who finished with a game-high 127 yards rushing.

Arizona's last chance to win or force overtime began with 27.2 seconds on the clock on the Utah 9 after a clutch punt by freshman Louie Sakoda. The last of three pass plays ended with Evans' game-clinching pick.

"I am very disappointed with tonight's performance. We could have done much better," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops. " . . . We didn't make the plays we needed throughout the game to win."

After a somewhat sluggish first half, the Utes and Wildcats wasted little time getting offensive. Both teams opened the third quarter with 80-yard touchdown drives.

Arizona got things started with a 13-yard scoring strike from Richard Kovalcheck to Mike Thomas. Utah followed with a 59-yard TD run by Brent Casteel.

Less than a minute later, the Utes embarked upon another point-producing series when safety Eric Weddle jarred the ball loose from Arizona running back Chris Henry and middle linebacker Joe Jiannoni scooped it up on the Wildcat 48.

Shortly thereafter Dan Beardall's 45-yard field goal — Utah's longest kick since 2002 — increased the Utes' lead to 20-10.

The margin later swelled to 17 points when Weddle intercepted Arizona quarterback Richard Kovalcheck and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown.

Before the quarter was complete, though, the Wildcats managed to match the score. Brad Wood hauled in a 21-yard pass from Kovalcheck with 2.4 seconds remaining.

Utah led 10-3 after halftime following a 36-yard field by Beardall and a 47-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Ganther in the second quarter.

The scores came on consecutive series that took a combined 7:41 off the clock. Beardall's kick concluded a 10-play sequence and made the score 3-3.

The Utes took the lead on their possession when Johnson teamed with Ganther on a shovel pass. Ganther eluded two tackles near the left hash mark before diving into the right corner of the goal line for the touchdown.

The play upped Johnson's first-half output to 158 yards passing on 13-of-21 accuracy. Ganther had game-high totals of 62 yards rushing and 50 receiving at the break.

"We came out a little but flat but the defense picked it up at the end of the second quarter and we were going," Weddle said. "We didn't think we could be stopped and the crowd got into it."

Arizona became the first team in six games and 28 quarters to take a lead on Utah. A 35-yard field goal by Nick Folk gave the Wildcats a 3-0 advantage with 14:16 remaining in the half.

The score capped an eight-play, 42-yard drive that followed a loss-on-downs by the Utes.

Both teams lost fumbles in the first quarter.

Arizona's came on the its first series when Henry lost the ball and Utah linebacker Malakai Mokofisi recovered it near midfield. The Utes turned the ball over midway through the quarter when Johnson mishandled a snap and Arizona's Marcus Smith pounced on it at the Utah 40.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com