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Utes much improved after half

In the midst of Saturday's 23-7 win over San Diego State, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham had a message for his team.

"I just told them at halftime that we had not come close to playing our best football," he said.

The Utes were clinging to a 9-7 lead at the break. All of their points came on field goals by Louie Sakoda, including one with just five seconds remaining in the second quarter.

It capped a frustrating first half for Utah, which held distinct statistical edges in total offense (249-144) and first downs (14-5).

Touchdowns were elusive, however.

That changed in the second half when the Utes reached the end zone on two of their first three possessions to pull away handily.

An 11-yard touchdown pass from Corbin Louks to Jereme Brooks and a 7-yard scoring strike from Brian Johnson to Darrell Mack proved to be more than enough to back a stellar defensive performance.

The latter set the tone as Utah improved its record to 4-3 overall and 1-2 in Mountain West Conference play.

Whittingham called it "the real story line of the game."

The defense played extremely well, he added, before downplaying the significance of his halftime remarks.

"Pregame speeches and halftime speeches are really good until the ball is in the air on the kickoff. Then they're put out the window," Whittingham said. "Everything reverts back to preparation and what you've done Monday through Friday and the talent level of your players."

The Utes, who enter Thursday night's game at TCU with three consecutive victories, had several key contributions in the win over San Diego State.

On offense, Johnson completed 22 of 29 passes for 220 yards and Mack rushed for 131 yards.

Utah wound up with 514 yards and 27 first downs. It wasn't enough, though, to satisfy the principle players.

"There's a lot of room for improvement," Mack said. "We've got a lot of things to work on."

Johnson noted that a pair of turnovers and point production were among the primary areas of emphasis.

Defensively, the Utes held the Aztecs to just 211 yards and 12 first downs. Cornerback Sean Smith intercepted a pass for the fourth time this season and nickel back R.J. Stanford recovered a fumble.

"That's what I do," said Smith, who credited the defensive line for making his job in the secondary easier.

San Diego State quarterback Kevin O'Connell was sacked five times and completed just 14 of 31 passes for 114 yards.

Whittingham said Utah's man coverage was the key. Stevenson Sylvester finished with a team-high eight tackles and was one of 10 Utes to make stops behind the line of scrimmage. Nai Fotu had a breakout performance with two tackles-for-loss and joined five of his teammates in assisting with sacks. He and Brice McCain each forced a fumble. McCain broke up two passes. Four others had one.

On the special teams front, Sakoda once again excelled. The junior wound up with 11 points kicking and pinned two punts inside the 20.

"Louie's money," said Johnson, who considers his teammate the "best kicker in the country."

Johnson did, however, have something to say about the floating pass Sakoda completed on a fake field goal that came up short. Johnson said the pass had a "little trajectory issue."

The Utes, meanwhile, do not. They're on a steady rise with three straight wins. A victory at TCU would even their conference record at 2-2 and put them back in the race.

"We are working hard each week, and we have to work hard for each win," Whittingham said. "As soon as you think 'Now we've got it figured out' then you get you butt-kicked. So we've just got to keep working — don't get complacent, which we have no reason to become complacent — and just keep fighting."