Tucson, Ariz. • My, how things can change in two weeks' time. The Utah Utes, who seemed on the verge of a dismal season following a rout at the hands of Cal two games ago, are now enjoying their first winning streak of the season.
The Utes were solid in all three phases of the game Saturday to beat Arizona 34-21 in front of 50,838 at Arizona Stadium.
The win puts the Utes (5-4, 2-4) one victory away from bowl eligibility while Saturday's loss eliminated the Wildcats (2-7, 1-6) from any postseason possibilities.
For the first time this season, the Utes feel like they have some legitimate momentum as they try to climb back up the Pac-12 South standings following the win over Oregon State a week ago and Saturday's effort.
"It feels great," said receiver DeVonte Christopher, who had three catches for 79 yards Saturday, including a 65-yard touchdown pass. "We've got us a two-game winning streak, and we played good in both games. We have to get better in the third quarter and do a better job coming out at halftime, but we are on a roll."
Saturday's game featured several standout plays in each area.
Utah's special teams blocked two punts, the defense intercepted Arizona quarterback Nick Foles twice, running back John White had 109 yards to give him 1,024 yards for the season, and Jon Hays had his best game as the Utes' quarterback, throwing 12 for 21 for 199 yards and two touchdowns.
"Everyone from the coaches, to the receivers to the running backs and defense played well tonight," Hays said. "It felt good to have it all come together."
Hays' touchdown pass to Christopher was the longest of his short career, while his 44-yarder to Reggie Dunn in the third quarter put the Utes comfortably ahead 27-7.
Those long passes, plus Utah's use of the short game, were just enough to give White room to run.
White scored on runs of 18 and 11 yards to help him become just the 10th Utah player to break the 1,000-yard rushing mark in a season.
"It wasn't just me, it was a team effort," he said.
As efficient as the offense was, Utah needed its defense to come up with some big plays in the fourth quarter to seal the win. It delivered, as safety Eric Rowe recovered a fumble on Arizona's 45-yard line and corner Conroy Black intercepted Foles on Utah's goal line, returning the ball 57 yards to Arizona's 43-yard line with 7:29 remaining.
Earlier in the game, linebacker Matt Martinez picked off Foles, who was 25 for 43 for 326 yards and two touchdowns. The Utes sacked him twice and kept enough pressure on him to prevent him from settling in the pocket.
"To get two wins in a row like this is huge," Martinez said. "Everybody played good. We took care of the ball, the defense got turnovers, and special teams killed it like they always do."
So what is the difference in the Utes? While Hays clearly has gotten more comfortable in his role, both Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and the players said a change in attitude after their 34-10 loss to Cal is the biggest difference.
"We came out and said we didn't want to be that team again," said Greg Bird, who helped block the two Arizona punts. "We've come out with a lot more juice and energy in practice, and that is paying off."
Now the Utes head into a showdown with UCLA at home. It's another chance for the Utes to keep moving up the standings and show they are a different team.
"We came out flat at Cal Berkeley that was our poorest game of the season," Whittingham said. "For whatever reason we weren't ready to play, and that was my fault as head coach. We harped on that and the passion and energy we needed, and we got that the last two weeks and won two in a row. We need it to continue."
R In short • John White rushes for 109 yards and quarterback Jon Hays throws for 199 yards and two touchdowns as Utah beats the Wildcats.
Key moment • Conroy Black intercepts Arizona quarterback Nick Foles on Utah's goal line with 7:29 remaining.
Key stat • Arizona turns the ball over three times; the Utes have no turnovers.