TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey predicted earlier in the week that Saturday night’s game would be the scene of his breakout, his first dominant performance of the 2013 season.
He proved to be prophetic — and productive — in Arizona’s 35-24 win against visiting Utah. Arguable college football’s best running back, the junior and reigning All-American started the game with a 30-yard carry and finished with 238 yards, the final 44 representing an exclamation point that all but wrapped up the Wildcats’ win.
His 44-yard touchdown run punctuated a night when Arizona scored early, held on late, and eventually put away a stubborn Utah team just a week removed from its eye-opening win over then-No. 5 Stanford.
Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez joked that whatever yardage Arizona needed on that last touchdown run, Carey “was going to be like Forrest Gump” and just keep running. With the Cats clinging to a 28-24 lead at the time, the touchdown effectively put the game away.
Utah linebacker Trevor Reilly, who saw plenty of Carey on Saturday night, said of the running back, “He doesn’t stop.”
Perhaps Arizona can trademark “Run, Carey, run.” Or “Carey happens.”
The 236-yard performance — which came on a school-record 40 carries — was the second best of his career, although it was still more than 100 yards short of the school- and conference-record 357 yards he put up against Colorado last season.
But it was more than enough Saturday night; Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he was having flashbacks to last season, when Carey ran for 206 yards in an Arizona win.
“Ka’Deem really took it to us again in the second half,” Whittingham said. “He was really one player against us that made a difference in the game.”
He certainly made a difference, carrying the load in a game Arizona desperately needed to stay in the hunt for both the Pac-12 South and, more generally, a successful season. The Wildcats are now 4-2 overall and 1-2 in the Pac-12.
The game-deciding run came just a series after Carey lost his first fumble of the season. Utah couldn’t capitalize on the turnover,, missing on a 40-yard field goal with 3:49 left that would have made it 28-27.
“After that fumble, I just had a lot (of energy) built in,” Carey said. “I felt I let my team down. I saw a crease and said, ‘I got your back, team.”
On Tuesday, Carey, who came into the game fourth in the country with a 142.2-yard average, said he expected to have a big game. He just felt it was about to happen.
“We had a big week of practice,” Carey said about his prediction. “We came out and were focused. Everybody just had energy. We knew what we wanted. I thought the two bye games got us out of rhythm, but the offense has a great rhythm now.”
It’s a little easier to find a rhythm, of course, with a back like Carey, who has speed, great balance, deceptive strength for his size (5-foot-10, 205 pounds), good vision and, perhaps just as importantly, consistency. Carey did, however, say he felt every carry after the game.
“That was a fun game,” he said, flashing his trademark smile. “The offense was giving me holes, and I just took it.”
Senior quarterback B.J. Denker, who finished 18 for 30 for 168 yards and a touchdown, said he was so confident in his backfield mate that he all but told his teammates Carey would be taking over.
“Before we went on the second-to-last drive, I told them that when you guys (media) ask why we won the game, it’s because we put the game on Ka’Deem’s back,” Denker said. “When there was about five or six minutes left, I said, ‘Hey, you gotta go win this for us.’ Then he goes and fumbles and makes me look (bad).
“The defense saves our butts, and he had some magic at the end with the long run.”
Denker went on to call it a “huge win,” and Rodriguez didn’t seem to disagree, stating his relief in being able to avoid another post-loss dissection.
“That’s hypothetical,” he said of discussing a third straight loss. “That would have been not a fun question to answer. Now, it’s fun. We’re now 1-2 (in the Pac-12) and we’re on our way.”
For more than a half, Arizona all but dominated. But things turned dramatically in the third quarter, when Utah rallied, took the momentum and then took a 21-20 lead.
“You don’t want to know what I said (to the team),” Rodriguez said. “I was kind of muttering to myself. You have to give them credit, but we helped.”
He was likely referring to a muffed punt and an apparent blown coverage on a 55-yard touchdown pass that put the Utes ahead.
“We made some easy mistakes to change the momentum over,” Rodriguez said. “It wasn’t like they were physically dominating us. That would be more concerning. We made a couple of mistakes. We just had to settle down offensively.”
They did, and for the opportunity to do so, the Wildcats can thank a freshman and a defense that stiffened when it needed to.
With Arizona down 21-20 late in the third quarter, diminutive freshman Nate Phillips made a diving catch for a 36-yard gain on a big third-and-3 play to keep a drive alive. Three plays later, Phillips scored on 7-yard reception, giving the Cats the lead and what turned out to be the deciding points. The Utes managed only a field goal the rest of the way.
Rodriguez called Phillips’ diving catch one of the plays of the game.
“Nate’s got the same kind of hunger and intensity and hunger that Ka’Deem has,” Rodriguez said. “That was a huge catch. We hadn’t executed well (to that point).”