Utah bounced back from its first loss since 2007 with a decisive 30-14 victory over Louisville at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
"We played our most solid football game of the season, by far," said head coach Kyle Whittingham. "I don't think there's any doubt about that."
The offense, defense and special teams, he added, performed as expected.
It was the unexpected, however, that left Whittingham feeling "bittersweet" about the homecoming victory.
Running back Matt Asiata, the Mountain West Conference's leading rusher, suffered a season-ending knee injury. The senior tore the ACL on his right knee after scoring a touchdown in the first quarter.
"I stood up and my legs went weird," Asiata said. "Then I just walked off."
Injuries, Whittingham acknowledged, are the worst part of the game.
"It breaks your heart when you see a guy like that in that situation," he said while noting that Asiata's injury put a cloud over the win.
Asiata was one of several Utes to get hurt. Left tackle Zane Beadles has a four-inch gash on his left leg; defensive tackle Lei Talamaivao cracked his fibula; safety Joe Dale experienced tightness in his leg muscles; defensive back Lamar Chapman received a hip contusion; and special teams standout Mychal Robinson injured an ankle.
"It jumped on us all at once," Whittingham said. "We had good health."
The Utes also had good spirits in their first outing since having the nation's longest active win streak snapped a week earlier in a 31-24 setback at Oregon.
"We haven't felt a loss in a long time, since '07. It was a gut-wrenching feeling and nobody liked it," said linebacker Kepa Gaison. "We decided as a team we don't want to feel that way again. The only way to get it out of our system was through a win. And that's exactly what we did."
The key, Whittingham explained, was Utah's ability to run the ball (214 yards) and Louisville's inability to do so (80 yards).
Eddie Wide stepped in for the injured Asiata and finished with a game-high 129 yards rushing. Success on the ground opened things up and allowed quarterback Terrance Cain to complete 17-of-22 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 51 yards.
"I really didn't pay too much attention to the stats," Cain said. "... We just tried to come out firing."
Cain was a perfect 8-for-8 passing in the pivotal first quarter. Two of his completions came in third-down situations during Utah's initial scoring drive. A 17-yard connection to Asiata and a 14-yard throw to Aiona Key kept the chains moving on a nine-play, 81-yard series that began after R.J.
Stanford blocked a 25-yard field goal attempt by Louisville's Ryan Payne.
A 24-yard touchdown run by Asiata capped things off with 6:04 remaining in the quarter. It also ended his night and season after three carries and 26 yards.
The 18 seconds that followed provided even more news of the field.
On the next play from scrimmage, Utah defensive end Koa Misi jarred the ball away from Louisville's Trent Guy. Safety Robert Johnson recovered it and then tossed in back onto the field while falling out of bounds. Stanford retained possession for the Utes.
Utah wasted little time cashing in on the turnover. Cain teamed with David Reed on a 42-yard scoring strike on the play that followed.
Leading 14-0, the Utes increased their lead with a pair of field goals by Joe Phillips in the second quarter — a 30-yarder with 5:17 remaining and a career-best 49-yard kick to close out the half.
Along the way, Utah's defense raised its takeaways to three. Johnson forced a fumble that was recovered by Dave Kruger and Gaison tipped a pass that was intercepted by Mike Wright.
"The real key in the first half, obviously, was the three takeaways," Whittingham said. "That really set the tone."
Utah's 20-0 halftime lead didn't hold firm for long.
Early in the third quarter, a Cain pass intended for Key was picked off by Louisville free safety Chaz Thompson. He returned it 21 yards to the Utah 29, setting up the Cardinals' first score. Quarterback Justin Burke eventually finished off a six-play drive with an 8-yard touchdown run.
After having their lead cut to 20-7, the Utes didn't responded until Phillips connected on a 24-yard field goal less than three minutes into the fourth quarter.
Louisville, though, retaliated with a touchdown a few minutes later. It came on an unusual play where a pass from Burke deflected off of receiver Scott Long and into the hands of tight end Cameron Graham, who rambled into the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown reception to make it 23-14.
The Utes matched it on their next possession — on a 34-yard touchdown pass from Cain to Jereme Brooks with 5:08 remaining — to finish things off.
"When you're playing good teams like we are playing — and Utah is a very good team — the margin of error is very small," said Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe. "When you make a mistake, the teams we are playing are very capable of capitalizing on those mistakes, and Utah did that tonight."
The Utes completed the non-conference portion of their schedule with a 3-1 record. They have a bye next week before opening league play Oct. 10 at Colorado State.
Considering the volume of injuries, the schedule is working out just fine.
"The bye comes at a very good time in that respect," Whittingham said.
e-mail: [email protected]