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Utes find even more positives

7 games into year, U. finally over .500 after beating SDSU

It took Utah seven games and a 23-7 win over San Diego State to get it done.

Saturday's victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium upped the Utes' record to 4-3 — marking their first journey above the .500 mark this season.

Brian Johnson threw for 220 yards, Darrell Mack rushed for 131 yards and the defense made 10 tackles-for-loss as Utah won its third consecutive game. The Utes picked up their first Mountain West Conference win in the process.

"It's big to get over .500. We've been kicking and scratching and clawing to get to that point all season, and we finally got over that little hump or milestone or whatever you want to call it," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "But we've still got to get to .500 in conference play. There's a lot of things we still have to accomplish."

The Utes (1-2 in the MWC) face preseason favorite TCU on Thursday night in Fort Worth.

"This will be a huge week for us," Johnson said. "We've still got a chance in the conference."

Getting in the win column, however, came after a somewhat sluggish start.

Field goals by Louie Sakoda, including a career-best 51-yarder, gave the Utes a 6-0 lead early in the second quarter.

At the time, Utah had a dominant statistical advantage over San Diego State — 156-38 in yardage and 9-1 in first downs.

"We got a lot of production in the run game," Whittingham said. "(But) we had to settle for some field goals where we would have liked to get touchdowns."

The Utes came up empty on their initial drive when Mack had the ball stripped away by San Diego State defensive back Corey Bordreaux on the 2-yard line. The ball bounced out of the end zone for a touchback.

Mack, who had 80 yards rushing in the first quarter, said he was stretching for the goal line at the time.

The tailback more than made up for it, though, the rest of the way. Besides leading all rushers, Mack also made a game-high six receptions for 45 yards and a touchdown.

The latter — a seven-yard scoring strike from Johnson in the third quarter — capped all scoring in a contest where the Utes where racked up 514 yards of total offense and 27 first downs.

The defense, meanwhile, did its part by holding San Diego State to only 211 yards and 12 first downs.

"I'm very proud of the way the defense played," Whittingham said. "We also got solid performances from Louie Sakoda, Brian Johnson and Darrell Mack."

Sakoda accounted for all of Utah's points in the first half. A 27-yarder by the junior put the Utes ahead 9-7 with just five seconds remaining in the second quarter. It capped a nine-play drive made possible by cornerback Sean Smith's fourth interception of the season.

"We wanted to come out and dominate every facet of the game on defense," Smith said. "I take my hat off to the defensive line. They made my job easier.

"We came out and played hard," he added. "We didn't want to let up at all."

The Aztecs' lone score came on a 5-yard touchdown run by Brandon Sullivan with 8:52 to go in the second quarter.

Utah's defense forced punts, two turnovers and a loss-on-downs the rest of the way. San Diego State quarterback Kevin O'Connell wound up completing 14-of-31 passes for 114 yards. He was sacked five times.

"I'm concerned about our pass protection," Aztecs coach Chuck Long said. "We need to make sure that we're putting our quarterback in a good position to make plays."

Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester led the Utes with eight tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage. Nai Fotu made a pair of stops in the backfield and was one of six Utah defenders involved with a sack. Cornerback Brice McCain had two pass breakups and nickelback R.J. Stanford recovered a fumble.

"We never got it going today on the field," Long said.

And Utah capitalized.

The Utes pulled away in the second half by scoring touchdowns on two of their first three drives. Before Johnson and Mack teamed up on a score, freshman Corbin Louks connected on an 11-yard TD pass with Jereme Brooks that made it 16-7.

"We knew coming into the game they would make us work for every yard and be patient on offense," Johnson said. "The second half we came out with more energy and got the ball in the end zone."


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com