Finally, all the suffering and lessons learned paid off. The Arizona Wildcats used their best mix of the pass and the run against the Utah Utes and rode Ka'Deem Carey's 40 carries and 236 yards to a 35-24 win in Tucson.
In Arizona's first conference victory this year, Rich Rodriguez did what he'd promised. He continued to build B.J. Denker's confidence and made sure to give Carey more of a load on his shoulders. The result on Saturday was too much for a strong Utah team coming off a program-defining victory against the Stanford Cardinal just a week prior.
Maybe the Utes didn't come to play in its first game out of the state of Utah through seven outings.
Credit the Wildcats for answering when Utah finally woke up.
UA's fast start and response to a second-half rally was impressive. So too was making up for the absence of Jared Tevis and the loss of Tra'Mayne Bondurant, who left early after possibly taking a hit to the head. It was Arizona's defensive line that stepped up to answer Utah's own inside dominance.
The second half included a revitalized Utes defensive effort, especially at the line, after UA built a 20-7 halftime lead.
Carey's yards per carry dropped considerably, and a muffed punt by Arizona's Johnny Jackson at UA's own 17-yard line turned the tide. After Utah backup quarterback Adam Schulz -- he replaced Travis Wilson, who left in the first half with a hand injury -- led Utah to a quick score off Jackson's miscue, he then scored on a 55-yard fleaflicker as the Utes took a 21-20 lead.
As if they were taking Utah's defense personally themselves, UA's defensive line stepped up. Utah had two three-and-outs to end the third, and after another Jackson muffed punt return that was recovered by UA, the Wildcats scored and converted a two-point conversion to begin the fourth quarter. A pretty 36-yard pass from Denker to freshman Nate Phillips and a short touchdown play also between the duo gave UA the momentum and the lead for good.
The Utes, however, managed a field goal thanks to sound field position and climbed within four, 28-24.
On Carey's career-high, school-record 36th carry, he fumbled at Arizona's 39-yard line but UA's defense held before the school's new fifth-most productive rusher in school history angrily rushed out the clock and then burst for a 44-yard touchdown, making up for his fumble minutes earlier and sealing the victory.
Six minutes into the game, Arizona (4-2) was first on the board. Denker scored on a 10-yard rush to cap an eight-play, 80-yard drive, but Utah answered on its next possession. From there, the Wildcats' defense settled in. They pushed all the way to the goal line with their own response but botched a 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line. The field possession would make a difference. Linebacker Marquis Flowers picked off a Wilson pass for a touchdown and UA took a 14-7 lead.
On the Utes' next offensive touch, the first play -- a deep ball thrown by Wilson -- was picked off by Shaquille Richardson and Denker finished off a 72-yard drive with his second touchdown rush. The extra kick was blocked, which oddly enough gave more reason for the Wildcats to have gone for the earlier 4th down on the goal line that ended with a sack on Denker.
Everything was going poorly for the Utes in the first half. Between untimely penalties and a surprised look as the Wildcats gave Carey the ball outside the hash marks early on, a missed 31-yard field goal by Utah's Andy Phillips described their night well. Phillips missed a 40-yarder in the second half, and now sits 11-of-13 on the year.
What about Denker?
The embattled UA quarterback didn't have as productive a night as the USC game, but he looked every bit as confident in going 18-for-30 for 168 yards and a touchdown. He added 51 yards and two scores on the ground.
The story of Carey and a nice mix of the pass might be promising. But so was a refreshed defensive effort that included holding Utah to 5-of-18 on third-down conversions, all without Arizona's two up defensive backs.