FORT COLLINS, Colo. Night and day.
That's how Utah coach Kyle Whittingham compared Saturday's 27-3 victory over Colorado State to the Utes' previous visit to Hughes Stadium.
"Two years ago was certainly one of the lows of my coaching career," he said in reference to a heartbreaking 21-17 setback in 2005. "The way that unfolded and the way we were unable to punch it in there at the end.
"A very different feeling, obviously, this year," he added. "We were very physical today."
Darrell Mack rushed for 151 yards and Ray Stowers added 123 as the Utes (6-3 overall, 3-2 in Mountain West Conference play) won their fifth-consecutive game and became bowl eligible.
Utah's defense had a stellar outing by holding CSU's highly touted ground game to just 135 yards. Running back Gartrell Johnson had all of his team-high 95 yards rushing in the first half. Quarterback Caleb Hanie was sacked five times.
"We tried to mix it up," said defensive coordinator Gary Andersen, who noted that the Utes utilized a package featuring versatile linebacker Nai Fotu that featured a lot of looks, including the circus blitz and two or three different zones.
"It's a lot for a quarterback and an offensive line to deal with," Andersen explained. "The goal with that package is to confuse you and not let you know what's coming."
The Rams (1-7, 1-4) simply had no response. By game's end, they converted on just 2-of-13 third-down opportunities.
"We made plays when they presented themselves," said safety Steve Tate, who led the Utes with 12 tackles. "We knew that this was a physical team and this was going to be a battle, and it was."
Utah's defense met the challenge. The Utes tallied 13 tackles-for-loss, seven sacks and four pass breakups. They held CSU's 1-2 running back punch of Johnson and Kyle Bell to a combined 142 yards.
"Stopping those backs means a lot," Tate said. "We got some confidence as far as stopping the run tonight."
CSU coach Sonny Lubick praised Utah's offense as well.
"We thought we had our team ready to play, but they're a pretty good offensive team," Lubick said. "I give coach Whittingham and all his coaches credit. They're a good ball club."
Utah led 20-3 at halftime. The Utes scored on their first four possessions to take control early.
A 15-yard touchdown pass from Brian Johnson to Ray Stowers got things started. It capped an 11-play, 80-yard drive that took 4:45 off the clock.
CSU's initial drive also went well. The Rams, however, had to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Jason Smith.
Leading 7-3, Utah began to pull away with success on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, the Utes reached the end zone with another sustained series. They marched 73 yards on 10 plays before Johnson teamed with Brian Hernandez on a 4-yard scoring strike.
The defense then did its part by forcing CSU to punt something the Rams would do two more times before the half was complete. The only other drive they had was foiled when Tate picked off quarterback Caleb Hanie.
Before the pick, the Utes increased their lead to 17 points on field goals by Louie Sakoda. The reigning three-time MWC special teams player of the week connected from distances of 45 and 37 yards to close all scoring in the half.
Utah racked up more yards (256-174) and first downs (16-9) than CSU, but the team's featured backs played to a near draw. Both Mack and Johnson carried the ball 14 times over the first two quarters. Mack had 99 yards for Utah, and Johnson netted 95 for CSU.
Defensive end Martail Burnett said the Utes addressed the situation at halftime. They blamed themselves for letting Johnson run well early.
"We got into the second half and eliminated the mistakes we were doing in the first half," Burnett said.
Neither team scored in the third quarter.
The Utes came the closest to doing so. However, a 48-yard field goal attempt by Sakoda hit the left upright. He had made 15 consecutive kicks before the miss.
Utah found the mark in the fourth quarter, though, when Stowers scored on a 1-yard run with 3:11 remaining.
"I know what I can do, and tonight I had an opportunity," said Stowers, who had all of his career-high rushing yardage in the second half. "I just played my hardest."The Utes have a bye this week. They'll resume play Nov. 10 at home against Wyoming. Season-ending games with New Mexico and BYU follow.