SAN DIEGO — Utah got back on track, just in time for this weekend's rivalry game with BYU.
Saturday's 38-34 victory at San Diego State ended a two-game skid for the Utes (9-2, 6-1) and gave them their fourth consecutive season with nine wins or better under head coach Kyle Whittingham.
It wasn't easy, but Utah eventually found a way to hand the much-improved Aztecs their first home loss of the season on a rainy night at Qualcomm Stadium.
"We needed to get this one and get a little more momentum heading into next week," Whittingham said. "And that's what we were able to do."
A "Hail Mary" touchdown as time expired in the first half gave the formerly downtrodden Utes renewed life. After two weeks of heartache, featuring lopsided losses to TCU (47-7) and Notre Dame (28-3), they emerged from the locker room at halftime with a boost of confidence.
"It gave us a big spark," Whittingham said. "They were very upbeat and very positive."
Enough, as it turned out, to withstand a little more adversity after cutting San Diego State's lead to 27-24 at halftime.
It came early in the third quarter when Utah defensive backs Konroy Black and Justin Taplin-Ross converged on a Ryan Lindley pass intended for Aztecs receiver Vincent Brown. The ball popped into the air and landed in Brown's hands. He raced across the goal line to complete a 90-yard pass play. Abel Perez connected on the PAT to make it a 10-point game.
Things didn't change until the fourth quarter. That's when Utah flexed its muscle and took the lead - for good.
The swing began with a 1-yard touchdown run by Matt Asiata with 13:18 left to play. Just over two minutes later, the Utes took the lead when Eddie Wide dove into the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the San Diego State 1.
Special teams standout Greg Bird set up the go-ahead score with a blocked punt. Christian Cox picked it up and plowed forward to the 3-yard line.
Three plays later, Wide stretched his way into the end zone. Kicker Joe Phillips added his fifth successful extra point as Utah took what proved to be the final advantage.
The Utes thwarted a comeback bid by the Aztecs when linebacker Chaz Walker intercepted a pass on the Utah 12 with 6:04 to go.
They wound up punting the ball back to San Diego State with 2:36 remaining. The defense, however, managed to hold off another threat when safety Brian Blechen picked off a pass in the end zone with 1:22 left in the game.
"We finally got some pressure on the QB," Cox said. "When you put pressure on the quarterback they start to make decisions they usually wouldn't make and that was the case."
It didn't take long for the Aztecs to get things done early on. They scored on the game's opening drive, marching 74 yards on eight plays.
A 10-yard touchdown pass from Lindley to Brown capped the series. Perez added the PAT as San Diego State took a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the contest.
Utah responded on its initial possession when Phillips made a 32-yard field goal. The Utes moved into scoring position when Wynn and Reggie Dunn teamed on a 42-yard pass play.
A exchange of punts followed before San Diego State embarked on its longest scoring march of the season, a 98-yard journey that took nearly six minutes off the clock. It ended with another scoring strike from Lindley to Brown, this one an 11-yarder.
Just over two minutes later, with 13:26 remaining in the second quarter, the Aztecs put the Utes in an even deeper hole. A 5-yard touchdown run by Ronnie Hillman made it 20-3. Unlike the previous two scores, however, Perez failed to make the ensuing extra-point kick.
When the Utes got the ball back, they managed to score just their second touchdown in 10 quarters — reaching the end zone on a 57-yard toss from Wynn to Luke Matthews.
Utah closed the deficit to 20-10 when Phillips followed with the PAT.
But the Aztecs used 14 plays and more than six minutes to move 86 yards and put more points on the board. A 14-yard TD toss from Lindley to Gavin Escobar and the PAT by Perez gave the Aztecs another 17-point lead.
Utah answered with two touchdowns in the final 4:16 to make it 27-24 at halftime.
A 16-yard touchdown run by Wide opened the late flurry and a 47-yard touchdown pass from Wynn to tight end Kendrick Moeai followed as time expired. The latter, on the "Hail Mary" pass, was tipped by a San Diego State defender and was caught by Moeai in the end zone.
"I rolled out and got a good block from Tevita. He laid the guy out that was chasing me," Wynn said. "I just threw it up and what do you know it ends up in Kendrick's hands."