SALT LAKE CITY - The Arizona Wildcats defense was game-changingly good Saturday, even if the evidence to support their showing was mostly, shall we say, circumstantial.

It's all about timing.

The UA surrendered 449 yards to one of the Pac-12's worst offenses, and an ordinary-looking Utah quarterback - a freshman, no less - went from pedestrian to pretty special.

But the Wildcats' defense stiffened when the game was hanging in the balance, making three consecutive stops on the way to a 34-24 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium

The first stop allowed Arizona to take the lead; the second one extended it and the third, finally, put the game away.

The visitors outscored the Utes 17-0 in the fourth quarter.

"I don't know how well we played," coach Rich Rodriguez said, "but we made just enough plays."

The performance was more surprising given that the Wildcats were "just hanging on," Rodriguez said, because of injuries.

And it's not like the Wildcats were world-beaters at full strength: The UA (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) heads into Friday's rivalry game with Arizona State ranked 114th nationally in total defense, 100th in scoring defense and tied for 97th in sacks.

None of that mattered Saturday. During a pivotal fourth quarter, the UA defense:

• Made one huge play. The Utes were facing fourth-and-six from its 39 with 12:27 remaining when coach Kyle Whittingham called for a fake punt. Punter Sean Sellwood pulled the ball down and threw to Mike Honeycutt.

Honeycutt caught the ball with room to run, but was caught from behind by Kylan Butler, a backup running back forced into special teams duty.

The Wildcats took over at Utah's 41. They needed just four plays to score, and take the lead.

"That was the play of the game," UA linebacker Sir Thomas Jackson said. "That may change the season right there."

Rodriguez agreed, in part because Butler - a career offensive player with almost no open-field tackling experience - was all alone.

"If he doesn't get him, (Honeycutt) might still be running," Rodriguez said. "I thought he made a tremendous play."

• Forced the Utes to throw. Staked to a lead with the clock running down, Arizona's defense forced to the Utes to be one-dimensional. Quarterback Travis Wilson attempted 14 passes on the Utes' final three drives, completing nine of them. Running back John White IV, the team's best player, was limited to just three carries for 9 yards.

Arizona's secondary kept things fairly basic against the inexperienced Wilson, allowing him to complete short passes - and keep the clock running - on first and second downs.

The Cats pounced, however, in short-yardage situations. A combined tackle by Marquis Flowers and Jared Tevis stopped Utah short on fourth-and-four with 3:30 minutes remaining. Arizona took over, and tacked on a field goal that iced the game.

"We knew what they were going to do: They had to throw the football," Rodriguez said. "And I think we tackled better."

• Found the winning 11. Lost in Arizona's fourth-quarter heroics was the play of a handful of backups who in most games - and in most seasons - wouldn't have been on the field.

Jackson, safeties Blake Brady and Vince Miles and nose tackle Tevin Hood all contributed during the defense's three stops.

Add in starting safety Jared Tevis, and the Wildcats had as many as five walk-ons or former walk-ons on the field at the same time.

"I'm glad we've got those walk-ons. I'd hate to think where we'd be if we didn't," Rodriguez said. "We will develop the best walk-on program in the country, and its going to help us win championships in the future."

But the future is so far away. For now, the Wildcats' present is pretty sweet.

"Different guys stepping up every game - that's how football is," Jackson said. "It's a team sport. And that's how it should be, too."

On StarNet: For more photos from the Arizona-Utah game, go to:

Carey now nation's leading rusher

SALT LAKE CITY - Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey now leads the nation in rushing after putting up 204 yards and one touchdown in Saturday's 34-24 win over Utah.

Carey has rushed for 1,585 yards this season, 21 yards more than Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson and 81 more than Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch. Carey also has 19 touchdowns, tied for third-most among the nation's leading rushers.

"That's awesome, to say we have the leading rusher right here in our backyard, right here in our backfield," UA center Kyle Quinn said late Saturday. "We're going to take great pride in that."

Carey said he "had a feeling, after this game" that he was leading the nation in rushing.

Arizona will take on rival Arizona State on Friday for the Territorial Cup. Carey said he's "so happy" that his team can look forward to the rivalry game after contests against Colorado and Utah.

"It's going to be a big game," he said. "They're going to be ready, we're going to be ready, and I think we're looking forward to it as a team."

The game is personal for Carey. The former Canyon del Oro High School star picked the UA over Arizona State just before signing day in 2011.

"It's the greatest choice I've ever chose," he said with a smile. "It's going to make it that much more intense."

- Ryan Finley

UP next

• Who: Arizona St. (6-5, 4-4) at Arizona (7-4, 4-4)

• When: 8 p.m. Friday


• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)