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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Utah's Dallin Rogers is upended by Utah State's De'von Hall during the Utes' homecoming game on Saturday afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Cold weather, complete with accompanying rain and snow, failed to put a damper on Utah's 34-18 victory over Utah State at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The Utes (2-3) were just happy to get a win — anyhow, anyway — after last Saturday's 27-0 loss at UNLV.

"It takes us out of a miserable feeling from last week. That's for certain," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We were as down as you can get."

Simply put, he added, this was a "much-needed win" for the Utes.

Whittingham said his team improved in all areas — offense, defense and special teams.

Quarterback Brian Johnson, who threw a pair of touchdown passes, agreed.

"I think the big thing is obviously execution," he said. "When you're not making plays then, obviously, you make things a little harder on yourself to win a football game."

Utah's homecoming victory featured several key performances. Tailback Darrell Mack rushed for a career-high 132 yards. Safety Steve Tate — a former Aggie — had a game-high 13 tackles, and Derrek Richards returned a punt for a touchdown.

"The bottom line is when we execute, we're a pretty good team," Johnson continued. "And when we can't execute, it's anybody's ballgame."

Throughout the week of preparation, Johnson repeatedly said the Utes must "find a way" to get things done. Besides overcoming two turnovers and a sluggish start, they found several ways to pull away from the Aggies.

In the third quarter, Utah kept a scoring drive alive by opting for a fake punt on fourth-and-eight from its own 22-yard line. Louie Sakoda ran 22 yards on the play to move the markers.

The Utes marched downfield, racking up five more first downs, before making it 31-10 on a 3-yard touchdown run by Mack.

Prior to the score, Utah's defense was put in a tight spot when USU middle linebacker Jake Hutton intercepted Johnson to give the Aggies possession inside the Ute 30. USU eventually moved 28 yards closer but came up empty in a bid to cut the lead to 24-17 at that point.

Utah's defense tightened by stopping three consecutive running plays. A subsequent 22-yard field goal attempt by USU was wide left.

USU coach Brent Guy considered it his team's "big opportunity" to get back in the game and perhaps snap what is now an 11-game losing streak.

"We have to score in the red zone and didn't convert," he said. "Our Achilles heel, thus far, has been scoring in the red zone. We really have to get it done there if we're going to win the game."

Whittingham said the series of events was the "turning point" in the game. It set up the Utes' pivotal 80-yard, 16-play scoring drive.

Utah's lead grew in the fourth when Sakoda connected on a 39-yard field goal to make it 34-10. The kick was set up by a fumble recovery. Defensive end Paul Kruger gave the Utes possession on the USU 18 after quarterback Leon Jackson III lost control of the ball on a run.

The Aggies battled back after the miscue. They wound up capping all scoring in the contest with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to Otis Nelson with 2:33 remaining.

A successful on-sides kick followed (the original ruling that the ball has not gone 10 yards was reversed by replay officials), but the ensuing offensive drive stalled after reaching the Utah 17 — resulting in a loss on downs.

"We did well in the second half hanging with them," Guy said. "But we weren't able to close the two-score gap."

The victory was the Utes' 10th straight over the Aggies, who extended a couple other skids in the 107th meeting of the nation's 12th-most played rivalry. USU (0-5) has lost 10 consecutive games in the month of September and nine non-conference contests in a row on the road.

Utah, meanwhile, proved that what happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas.

There was little carryover — in the form of tough luck and poor tackling — from the loss at UNLV.

Midway through the first quarter, Johnson was picked off by USU's James Brindley. The safety, who pulled the ball away from receiver Jereme Brooks, returned the interception 64 yards to the Utah 1 after zig-zagging from sideline-to-sideline.

One play later. quarterback Jackson ran in for a touchdown. It was the first time in 10 games that the Aggies scored first.

The 7-0 lead, though, didn't last long.

Utah fired back on the ensuing possession and evened things up. A 22-yard scoring strike from Johnson to Brooks capped a sustained drive that covered 72 yards on eight plays.

The 7-7 deadlock carried over in the second quarter. That's when the Utes began to pull away.

Richards got things started with a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown with 14:36 remaining in the half. It was Utah's first punt return for a score since Steve Smith took one back against California in 2000.

After USU cut the deficit to 14-10 on a 24-yard field goal by Peter Caldwell, the Utes once again extended their lead. They held a 24-10 halftime advantage following a 38-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Marquis Wilson with 7:04 to go and a 31-yard field goal from Sakoda as time expired.

"I thought the first half was dominated by special teams," Guy said. "Utah got a great advantage in the first half scoring on that punt return and they had good field position the whole half."

Both teams return to action next week. Utah visits Louisville in a nationally televised game on Friday, while USU visits Hawaii on Saturday night.

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