SALT LAKE CITY — And with a Rebel yell, the 20th-ranked Utah Utes cried for more, more, more improvement Saturday afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
After a sluggish start, however, the Utes caught fire and cruised to a 38-10 victory over UNLV.
"It was a good start to conference play. We got the win," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "We're still not as clean as we need to be — cleaner than last week — but still some things to deal with."
Too many penalties, a "problematic" punting game, an "unacceptable" pass rush and third-down defense were some of things Whittingham pinpointed for improvement.
Not all was bad, though.
Whittingham acknowledged there were a lot of positives as well.
It was Utah's 19th consecutive win at home, a Mountain West Conference record.
"Our players are very proud of it," Whittingham said. "Our fans should be proud of it."
The Utes broke open a close game with touchdowns late in the second quarter and early in the third. They did so without starting quarterback Jordan Wynn, who sprained the thumb on his throwing hand in last week's win over Pittsburgh and did not play at all Saturday.
Former starter Terrance Cain, Wynn's current backup, stepped in and completed 13-of-20 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns. The junior college transfer is now 8-1 as Utah's starter.
"I'm proud of Terrance Cain," Whittingham said. "He came in and did a nice job of managing the offense."
A 55-yard touchdown pass from Cain to Shaky Smithson, along with the PAT from Joe Phillips, increased the Utes' lead to 24-3 with just 1:13 gone in the third quarter.
The play was part of a 21-point outburst by Utah.
It could have been greater had it not been for a special-teams gaffe. For the second consecutive game, punter Sean Sellwood (who injured his ankle on the play) had a kick blocked. This one, however, resulted in a touchdown for the Rebels. UNLV's Nate Carter blocked it, and Tim Hanson scooped up the ball to return it 19 yards for a score.
With the lead cut to 24-10, Utah turned the tables on UNLV with a special-teams score of its own.
Smithson, who fumbled twice against Pitt, highlighted an impressive personal comeback. The senior scampered 77 yards up the left sideline on a punt return for his second touchdown of the day with 7:22 left in the third quarter.
"I'm very happy to see him bounce back and have success today," Whittingham said.
Following another PAT by Phillips, Utah's lead extended to 21 points.
It swelled to 38-10 early in the fourth when the Utes cashed in on a bad snap on a UNLV punt that gave them possession on the Rebel 33. Wide capped a six-play series with a 13-yard touchdown run.
The Las Vegas native had a good showing against his hometown team, rushing for a game-high 77 yards on 15 carries.
Although he did lose a fumble early in the game, Wide paid the balance on the miscue — with interest — in the second quarter.
The senior put the Utes ahead for good with a 3-yard touchdown run with 7:44 left in the half.
The score concluded an 11-play, 80-yard march by Utah.
It stayed that way until Wide resurfaced on a punt cover team with just 37 seconds remaining. He forced a fumble by UNLV returner Sidney Hodge and then pounced on the ball to give the Utes possession on the Rebel 20-yard line.
Five seconds later, Cain teamed with Jereme Brooks on a scoring strike. Phlllips' extra point gave Utah a 17-3 halftime lead.
"I was just going down to make a tackle," Wide said. "I wanted to kind of make up for the fumble at the beginning of the game. It ended up happening, and all of a sudden the ball is on the ground, so I hopped on it."
The scored was tied at 3-3 after one quarter despite significant statistical advantages for UNLV. The Rebels had the ball for more than 111/2 minutes and ran 14 more plays than the Utes did. They held a 97-52 edge in total offense.
Even so, Utah never trailed.
After holding UNLV to three plays and a punt on the game's opening series, the Utes garnered good field position on a 30-yard return by Smithson. They took over on the UNLV 32, but a 5-yard run by Asiata on first down followed by two incomplete passes led to Phillips connecting on a 44-yard field goal to put Utah ahead 3-0.
UNLV responded with a sustained drive on the ensuing possession to even things up. The Rebels converted on third down four times while running 18 plays and taking a whopping 9:15 off the clock. They capped things off with a 28-yard field goal by Nolan Kohorst.59 comments on this story
The early success, however, came as little consolation to first-year UNLV coach Bobby Hauck.
"Utah's better than us and made fewer mistakes," he said before addressing the bottom line. "... There's only winning and losing. We lost."
The Rebels (0-2, 0-1) travel to Idaho next week, while the Utes (2-0, 1-0) visit New Mexico.