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Photo By Brian Nicholson, Deseret Morning News
Fans in the Utah student section — aka "The MUSS" — show their support for the home team.

Kyle Whittingham said there was absolutely no way the Utes were going to overlook New Mexico on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

It didn't matter that the game was sandwiched between an emotional victory over Wyoming and next weekend's showdown with rival BYU.

After losing four of the past five meetings with the Lobos, including the past two, Utah had a score to settle.

"They had our number," Whittingham said.

Key word: "Had."

Paced by a powerful defensive performance and four fumble recoveries, Utah defeated New Mexico, 28-10.

The victory kept the Utes' Mountain West Conference championship hopes alive and all but officially locked up an invitation to the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 20 to face Navy. They extended their win streak to seven games while improving to 8-3 overall and 5-2 in league play.

"A good win for the Utes," Whittingham said. "I'm very proud of our players and very proud of our assistant coaches."

There were plenty of contributions in Utah's home finale.

The offense netted 310 yards and 19 first downs, while the defense racked up 10 pass breakups, eight tackles-for-loss and two forced fumbles.

"The turnovers tonight were the momentum-changers," said New Mexico coach Rocky Long, whose team lost four fumbles, including two on punt returns. "Just as we got things going our way, we seemed to turn the ball over.

"Utah made plays and we didn't," he added.

Utah led 14-0 at halftime.

After a scoreless first quarter, the Utes scored twice in the second. They took the lead with 13:38 remaining in the half on a 1- yard touchdown run by Darrell Mack.

Utah's second touchdown came with just 22.9 seconds to go. It involved a little trickery — a 7-yard scoring strike from Jereme Brooks to Bradon Godfrey. The receivers completed a misdirection play that began with quarterback Brian Johnson taking the snap, turning left and then flipping the ball back to Brooks who was heading right.

He then threw the ball to Godfrey in the end zone.

"We drew that up. We've been practicing it all week," Godfrey said. "I'm just glad he threw it. It was a well-designed play."

The Utes avoided trouble on the game's first play when New Mexico quarterback Donovan Porterie connected on a 53-yard pass to Rodney Ferguson. He was hit by safety Robert Johnson and the ball was jarred loose. Gabe Long recovered the fumble on the Utah 27-yard line.

"I thought that really gave away the momentum that could have swung our way," Long said.

The Lobos never ventured back into Utah territory the rest of the half.

That changed in the second half, however.

New Mexico climbed back into contention with back-to-back scores in the third quarter.

The first — a 2-yard touchdown run by Ferguson early in the third quarter — came four plays after cornerback DeAndre Wright picked off Johnson and returned the interception 42 yards to the Utah 11.

The touchdown was the first the Utes had allowed in 12 quarters and ended a run of nine consecutive without giving up a single point.

"That's football," defensive coordinator Gary Andersen said. "You don't expect to shut people out every week, not at this level of football."

New Mexico's next possession also resulted in a score. The Lobos converted on third down four times on a sustained drive featuring 18 plays. The Lobos, though, had to settle for a 22-yard field goal by John Sullivan when Utah's defense tightened.

A few minutes later, a special teams play gave the Utes even more momentum.

Kepa Gaison recovered a muffed punt return by New Mexico and a personal foul penalty on the Lobos gave Utah the ball near the red zone at the 24-yard line.

Three plays later, Johnson teamed with Derrek Richards on a 7-yard touchdown pass to make it 21-10 with 49 seconds left in the third quarter.

The Lobos never retaliated.

Utah delivered the final blow midway through the fourth quarter when defensive end Paul Kruger wrapped up Porterie and knocked the ball away. It bounced off the field and was scooped up by linebacker Koa Misi, who took it 28 yards to the end zone for a touchdown.

Prior to the score, both teams exchanged fumbles. R.J. Rice recovered another botched punt return by the Lobos and Frankie Solomon pounced on a ball that Johnson lost the handle on the very next play. Utah had first-and-goal on the New Mexico 5 at the time.

The latter didn't prove costly.

Misi's return later in the quarter capped all scoring in the game and highlighted another solid defensive performance by the Utes.

"We've got some swagger. Definitely," said safety Steve Tate, who credited Andersen for doing a great job of putting people in position to make plays. "We've got some confidence on defense."

The Utes held the Lobos to 279 yards of total offense.

"I think we had a very solid effort," Andersen said. " ... I couldn't be prouder of the kids. They played their hearts out and did a very good job."

Now, he added, Utah's focus shifts to BYU. The Cougars have already clinched a share of the MWC championship and can win it outright with a win over the Utes or a victory at San Diego State on Dec. 1.

If BYU loses both games, Utah can share the crown.

"We'll put it full-steam ahead, right now, on the Cougars. It'll be a great football game," Andersen said. "They're a great football team and I think we're a great team, too."

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