Fort Collins, Colo. » Down two touchdowns with all the momentum in favor of the Colorado State Rams, the Utah Utes remembered their loss at Oregon three weeks ago and had one prevailing thought Saturday -- not again.
Not again would they allow a game to slip away and suffer a plane flight home made worse by the gnawing thought they could have won if they'd only tried a little harder or executed a little better.
Put in a similar situation Saturday, the Utes used their determination plus some nifty defensive plays from safety Robert Johnson to avoid such disappointment as they came from behind to beat Colorado State 24-17 in front of 30,499 at Hughes Stadium.
"Us experiencing that loss at Oregon, we knew we were a better team than a lot of other teams but we needed to show it," said Johnson, who ended CSU's last three drives with interceptions. "We beat ourselves in that game and we know we are better than that."
The Utes nearly did it to themselves again Saturday, struggling with third down conversions, fumbling three times and giving up several big plays.
Yet somehow the Utes (4-1, 1-0) managed to put together drives when it mattered most to win their fourth straight over the Rams (3-3, 0-2) and start conference play with a victory.
"Going 0-1 would have been devastating," linebacker Stevenson Sylvester said.
Instead the win was made that much more satisfying by showing the determination and character of a team that really hadn't established much of an identity through its first four games.
Now they have an idea at least of the mentality of this year's team. The way the Utes battled back, scoring three unanswered touchdowns, reminded coach Kyle Whittingham of the never-say-die attitude of the 2008 team.
"Hopefully it gives us a lot of confidence to win a game in that fashion," he said. "We don't want to make a habit of it, but to win a game like that gives us a great learning experience and it's similar to how our team operated last year in those tense situations."
Quarterback Terrance Cain had a steady game, completing 24 of 32 passes for 248 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, and running back Eddie Wide had 17 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown.
However, it was Johnson who provided the most highlights, ending CSU's last three drives with interceptions.
"We knew we had to get the ball back to the offense so they could put it in the end zone," he said.
His offensive teammates did just that, scoring touchdowns after his first two interceptions.
"Nothing was said," offensive lineman Zane Beadles said. "We just had a collective thought that 'We're not going to lose this ballgame. We have some adversity staring us in the face so let's go beat it.'"
The first of those final touchdowns capped a 17-play drive that went 73 yards and burned eight minutes and 45 seconds in the fourth quarter. The Utes converted three third downs on that drive and scored on another with Wide rushing in from a yard out to tie the game at 17-17. Previously the Utes were just 2-for-7 on third downs.
After Johnson's second interception, the Utes put together another 73-yard drive that ended with Cain throwing an 8-yard pass to Wide with 3:40 remaining.
Johnson's final interception came with 2:20 remaining, allowing the Utes to run out the clock and celebrate a game that might have changed from disastrous consequences to defining moment for these Utes.
"It took us a while to get going offensively," Whittingham said. "But to get down 17-3 and the way our guys responded, I couldn't be more proud of a group of guys. They rallied up, stayed focused and found a way to win at the end."
In short » The Utes rally from a 17-3 deficit to beat the Rams for the fourth straight time.
Key moment » Safety Robert Johnson ends CSU's last three possessions with interceptions.
Key stat » The Utes convert their last seven third downs after going 2-for-7 on the previous attempts.