Two fumbles on the first two drives of the game didn't quell the concerns about the elephant in the room. The Arizona Wildcats' road woes were something real; the team hadn't beaten a team away from Arizona Stadium since Nov. 19, 2011, when they went to Tempe and beat the Sun Devils.
It always comes back to the Sun Devils, but on Saturday, that was looking one step ahead.
Nonetheless, Ka'Deem Carey and company shed the questionable road label as the Wildcats earned their first away win of the year Saturday night with a 34-24 defeat of the Utah Utes in Salt Lake City. The Wildcats moved to 7-4 on the season by riding 204 yards on 26 touches by their sophomore running back.
The night looked anything but promising from the start. Quarterback Matt Scott got the OK from the team medical staff to play, and he fumbled the ball on the first play. The Wildcats wouldn't score there, nor on the next drive when Carey coughed the ball up on the first snap of the possession.
Both teams looked desperate for a victory, and for good reason. Utah's bowl hopes would fly out the window with the loss -- the first time in nine years for them -- and the Wildcats couldn't afford a slip in momentum coming after an unsatisfying victory against Colorado last week.
Jeff Casteel's defense can take much credit for the turnaround. Where Scott struggled in the passing game, going 12-of-27 for just 160 yards, UA's defense held strong throughout. Take Utah's deep drive to the Arizona 4-yard line in the first quarter as proof -- the Wildcats stuffed John White on a 4th-and-1 to take the ball, the swing leading to a 44-yard John Bonano field goal to get the scoring off.
Utah would respond on its next touch with a touchdown, but Arizona quickly struck back with an eight-play, 75-yard drive that took less than three minutes to go ahead 10-7 with eight minutes to play in the first half.
Scott rushed for a 10-yard score just two minutes later to go ahead 17-7 after defensive end Reggie Gilbert forced Utah quarterback Travis Wilson to fumble.
UA's senior quarterback had 13 carries for 74 yards in his return from a concussion two weeks ago.
The Wildcats would allow Utah to score again, and they failed to capitalize on a late drive before halftime thanks to another fumble. Arizona led 17-14 at half.
The Utes scored 10 unanswered to begin the second half and led 24-17, but Carey and crew kept the UA offense churning yards at a time. Arizona tied it at 24 on a Daniel Jenkins touchdown with 13:55 to play, then forced a turnover on downs on the next Utah opportunity.
Utah was 1-of-5 on fourth downs on Saturday, a sign that there was no holding back. And Arizona's defense made the plays when it was most needed.
Taking advantage of a penalty on Star Lotulelei that came after a failed run into the end zone, Scott found Austin Hill -- six catches for 96 yards -- for a go-ahead touchdown with 11 minutes to play. Arizona had one more fourth down stop in it, and Bonano added the nail in the coffin with a 24-yard field goal.
And all of a sudden, all the road troubles dissipated. UA scored three times in the fourth quarter and also forced three turnovers on downs against Kyle Whittingham's team. It wasn't the shriveling defense and suddenly quiet offense of the Stanford game, nor the blowouts Arizona suffered against Oregon and UCLA.
Despite getting nearly doubled up in the passing totals, despite outgaining the Utes by only 31 total yards and despite turning the ball over twice, Rodriguez's team can for now shed the the question lingering this season. The road isn't so scary after all.
Of course, the Wildcats know what's next. It's the season finale, and a decent to good bowl game is up for grabs. And there's that one Pac-12 South team left to play.
The road drought is over. And like it always does in Tucson, the theme always comes back to beating Sun Devils once again.