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October 28, 2012

Utes win!

Perhaps the most simple headline in all of sports says it all Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, as Utah (3-5, 1-4) blacked out the Cal Bears (3-6, 2-4), 49-27.

Utah saw its fortunes turned Saturday, as almost everything that could go right, did, contrary to the events of its previous seven games.

After finally getting their first win in almost a month and a half, head coach Kyle Whittingham made a point to thank Utah fans for their support through the team's four-game losing streak.

"I want to thank our crowd. We've had a tough little skid here, and they show up," praised Whittingham. "They sellout [the stadium] and are behind us 100 percent. We're very, very appreciative of the support our crowd has given to our players."

In return for their support, fans were treated to Utah's first full game, complete with turnovers forced, defensive touchdowns set up by strong special teams play.

"That's what we need. We had a complete team effort, said Whittingham. "[It was] the first real team effort of the season, and finding alternative ways to score is what you need. Having special teams and defense come up with scores is what you need. It's all good stuff."

Beside the Ute punting game, which might have netted Aussie punter Tom Hackett his second Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week award had it not been for Reggie Dunn.

Dunn singlehandedly provided 14 points with two 100-yard kickoff returns, igniting both the crowd and his teammates. Dunn's special teams performance should earn him conference honors, and also got his name in the Utah record books, becoming the first Ute to return two kickoffs for 100 yards. The humble Dunn credited his teammates, and special teams coach Jay Hill.

"I just saw open daylight, and guys in front of me picking up blocks," credited Dunn. "It's not just me returning the ball, it was guys flying around in front of me making blocks, making hits to make special teams work."

With scoring from the offense, defense and special team, the Utes finally put a full game together for the first time all season. It took eight games to get all three facets of the game firing on all cylinders, but the Utes finally got their first Pac-12 win.

Utah's first conference victory was also freshman quarterback Travis Wilson's first career victory, as senior Jon Hays was the starter in Utah's last victory against BYU on September 15.

Wilson was impressive far beyond his 16-24, 156-yard performance, mostly due to things that don't show up in the box score. Wilson stood tall in the pocket with poise, made good decisions, and won the respect of his teammates outright with a monster block on what turned out to be a three yard gain on a Reggie Dunn reverse.

Seeing their starting quarterback make a block as impactful as the one Wilson threw Saturday gave the Utes a spark, and likely earned their outright respect.

"It just shows you that everyone on offense and everyone on this team is all in, and committed to winning," said Reggie Dunn. "You could see once he hit him, everybody was fired up and it sparked the offense, and it sparked the rest of the team."

Partial credit for Wilson's big step forward Saturday may be attributed to the decision to move Utah Offensive Coordinator Brian Johnson out of the box, and onto the sideline in order to gain ready access to Wilson.

"We hoped it helped, that's why we did it. We hoped it would create a bit more of a connection between [Wilson and Johnson]. That's why I hired [Johnson]; for his leadership abilities and energy and his passion he has for the game,"explained Whittingham. "To bring him down out of the box gave us a little bit of a spark, so we're going to operate that way, at least in the foreseeable future."

Also taking a step forward Saturday was Utah's offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, who probably called his best game of the season from start to finish, as the Utes demonstrated good offensive balance.

Utah showed a consistent commitment to the run game, which opened things up for Wilson and the passing attack.

Senior running back John White ran for 105 yards on 22 rushes, and Kelvin York rushed for 51 yards on 11 carries.

In the aerial attack, Kenneth Scott led all Ute receivers with five catches for 59 yards, and Luke Matthews had 2 catches for 45 yards and tight end Jake Murphy snagged four passes for 37 yards.

Utah also demonstrated tremendous improvement with third down and the red zone offense. The Utes converted eight of 13 third downs and scored touchdowns on all four of its trips to the red zone.

The Utah defense also got into the act, as Ute nickel Reggie Topps scooped up a Cal fumble recovery and ran it back 17 yards for the score late in the first quarter, putting Utah up 14-3 following the first of Dunn's kickoff returns. The defense, focused on turning the ball over and applying QB pressure this week, did exactly what it needed to do, even if it softened up late in the fourth quarter with the victory all but sealed.

Along with Topps' scoop and score recovery, senior Ryan Lacy intercepted Cal's Zach Maynard off a tipped pass, and Star Lotulelei recovered a fumble forced by Trevor Reilly.

Additionally, the Utah defense came up with four sacks for a loss of 20 yards. Krugers, Dave and Joe each tallied a sack, as did Topps and defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi each contributed one. Utah also had five tackles for loss, and safety Brian Blechen played his best game of the season, leading the Utes with seven tackles.


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