ALBUQUERQUE — It certainly wasn't easy and at times it was downright dramatic.
When all was said and done, however, 10th-ranked Utah found a way to keep its Bowl Championship Series and Mountain West Conference title dreams alive Saturday night at University Stadium.
The Utes left here with a 13-10 win over the New Mexico Lobos, improving to 9-0 for just the second time in school history.
"We've got to win tough road games in this conference to even come close to winning the championship," quarterback Brian Johnson said as he walked off the field. "We're happy to get out of here with a win. We're 9-0 now and we can move forward to a big game Thursday night."
That's when Utah and TCU tangle in a battle of nationally ranked teams at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Season-ending games at San Diego State and at home against BYU follow as the Utes pursue a path taken by the undefeated, BCS-busting 2004 team.
Defensive coordinator Gary Andersen acknowledged the "hard-fought game" may be the start of something special down the stretch.
"Great teams find a way. We've got a few more games to see if we're great," he said. "We'll find out. But we wouldn't have been great if we didn't (win this) one."
The Utes held firm on a final 10-play drive by the Lobos, keeping them out of Utah territory until the last snap. The game ended on a completed pass that landed them on the 46-yard line.
"The kids found a way at the end to stop them on that last drive and that was huge," Andersen said.
The stop extended Utah's overall winning streak to 10 games.
"This was a tough game right here. New Mexico is real good,"
safety Robert Johnson said. "We knew it was going to be a tough battle from the get-go."
Utah's offense was held 26 points below it season average. Penalties and two turnovers stymied an effort to match the Utes' solid performance against Colorado State two weeks earlier.
Senior receiver Brent Casteel didn't mince his words after the game.
"The offense made stupid plays," he said. "There's no other way to describe it."
Casteel acknowledged the victory was a positive, but noted the Utes have a lot of things to work on.
Utah wound up with 388 yards of total offense and 17 first downs. The Utes failed to convert on third down eight times, though.
New Mexico, meanwhile, finished 284 yards and was stopped 10 times on third down.
The differences proved to be somewhat misleading as the game went down to the wire. There were plenty of twists and turns before it was complete.
After a subpar showing over the first two quarters, Utah came out stronger in the third. The Utes forced the Lobos to punt twice before embarking on the game's first touchdown drive. They capped things off with a "hook-and-ladder" play for a score with 3:15 to go in the quarter. Brent Casteel ran 10 yards for a touchdown after Jereme Brooks pitched the ball to him after catching a pass from Johnson.
Following the PAT, Utah's lead stood at 13-3.
It didn't stay that way for long.
On the final play of the quarter, New Mexico moved back in to contention when Rodney Ferguson ran 10 yards for a touchdown. It came one play after a review that nullified a possible fumble by Ferguson that was recovered by Utah's Sean Smith.
The reversal of fortune gave the Lobos renewed life and they capitalized on it, keeping the game close down the stretch.
Utah had a chance to secure some breathing room along the way, but a Johnson pass intended for Freddie Brown in the left corner of the end zone was intercepted by New Mexico cornerback DeAndre Wright with 10:59 left in the game.
The shortfall led to the dramatic finish.
For the first time this season, Utah failed to score a touchdown in the opening half. New Mexico's stingy defense limited the Utes to just a pair of Louie Sakoda field goals. The second kick — from 38-yards out — came as time expired and gave them a slim 6-3 advantage at the break.
New Mexico had pulled even just over 5=BD minutes earlier when James Aho connected on a 38-yard field goal. Aho had an earlier opportunity to put the Lobos on the board, but a 41-yard attempt was blocked by Utah's Aiona Key.
Utah dominated the first quarter statistically, racking up 94 yards of total offense while holding New Mexico to minus-1. The disparity failed to translate to the scoreboard, however. The lone score was a 43-yard field goal by Sakoda.