FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Robert Johnson was looking forward to this one. Utah's free safety was champing at the bit to face Colorado State.

"He was really excited about the opportunity to play against a team that throws the ball deep," said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake.

The feeling, however, probably isn't mutual.

Johnson ended Colorado State's final three drives with interceptions as the Utes rallied for a 24-17 victory at Hughes Stadium.

"Robert Johnson, what more can you say about that kid?" said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "Three picks, really he was the difference in the ballgame."

The interceptions set up two late touchdowns and preserved the victory for the Utes.

"He's a great free safety. That's all I can say," Sitake added. "He's the last line of defense."

Johnson, though, wasn't a one-man show. Several of his teammates also played key roles in the victory.

Quarterback Terrance Cain directed three scoring drives after the Utes fell behind 17-3 late in the third quarter. He wound up completing 24-of-32 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns.

Running back Eddie Wide ran for 102 yards and a score, while receiver David Reed hauled in a game-high nine catches for 140 yards.

All made major contributions in the successful comeback.

Cain and Reed teamed on the first score to make it 17-10. Wide accounted for the last two touchdowns. He reached the end zone on a 1-yard run and an 8-yard pass from Cain in the fourth quarter.

The game-winning score came with 3:40 left to play.

"I couldn't have been more proud of a group of guys to rally up, hang in there, stay mentally tough, stay focused and find a way to win," Whittingham said. "(There was) no panic at all. No panic on the coaches' part. No panic on the players' part. Just making plays when we had to make them."

The victory ups Utah's record to 4-1 overall and 1-0 in Mountain West Conference play. CSU drops to 3-3 and 0-2.

"It really hurts not to come out on the winning side of this ballgame out there. I thought, obviously, we did a nice job defensively and there were some nice spots out there offensively against a very good football team," said CSU coach Steve Fairchild. "We kind of had it dialed up and made some very, very poor decisions late in the ballgame to end up losing."

The Rams' downfall began late in the third quarter when Johnson intercepted quarterback Grant Stucker for the first time. CSU was clinging to a 17-10 lead at the time.

Utah responded with a 17-play drive that covered 73 yards and took 8:45 off the clock. The Utes converted on third down four times along the way.

"It was a heckuva drive," said Whittingham, whose squad wound up going 6-for-6 on third downs at the end of the game. "They had all the momentum and we just turned it around."

While Johnson put an end to CSU's drives with interceptions, Cain marched the offense down the field. He followed the lengthy game-tying series with another 73-yard sequence — this one consisting of just seven plays — to put Utah ahead for good.

Whittingham praised Cain for being "very poised in a tough situation" and never losing his cool.

"That's one of his strengths," Whittingham said. "He's unflappable. Nothing bothers him."

Steady play down the stretch led the Utes to their fourth consecutive win over CSU. They also extended their conference winning streak to nine games overall heading into next Saturday's game at UNLV.

"To win a game in that fashion, I think, there's a lot of positives that can come out of it," Whittingham said. "We don't want to make a habit of it, but it was a great learning experience."

And very similar, he added, to how last year's Sugar Bowl championship team operated in those situations.

After playing to a 3-3 standstill in the opening half, CSU took its first lead over Utah in nearly four years on a 1-yard touchdown run by Leonard Mason early in the third quarter. A 45-yard gain by Rashaun Greer on a double reverse set up the score.

The momentum shift continued on Utah's ensuing possession when CSU linebacker Mychal Sisson recovered a fumbled exchange from Cain to Wide.

The Rams capitalized on the turnover by marching 61 yards on eight plays to take a two-touchdown lead. They finished the drive, which included a fourth-down conversion, with a 36-yard scoring strike from Stucker to Dion Morton.

Trailing 17-3, Utah's rally was sparked by big plays on offense and defense.

The rally began with a 47-yard touchdown pass from Cain to David Reed.

Then came the defense. Johnson's heroics began on CSU's next possession.

"We were trying to come back against Oregon (earlier in the season) and it didn't work out in our favor," Johnson said. "This week we had bigger plays than Colorado State."

Utah led 3-0 after the first quarter. Kicker Joe Phillips put the Utes in front by connecting on a 41-yard field goal into the wind with 5:27 left.

The tight score, however, didn't match the disparity in total offense. Utah had 134 yards in the quarter, while CSU had just 24.

The Rams eventually tied the score in the second. A 43-yard field goal by Ben DeLine capped an 11-play drive with 9:03 left in the half.

Utah had a chance to regain the lead in the closing seconds, but opted not to attempt a 45-yard field goal. The Utes chose to go for it on fourth-and-3 instead and came up one yard short on a pass play from Cain to Wide with 14 seconds to go.

CSU closed the statistical gap significantly in the second quarter. The Rams held the Utes to 65 yards and three first downs, limiting their time of possession to just 5:23.

"Steve Fairchild is doing a great job with those guys," Whittingham said. "They were everything we expected them to be."

e-mail: dirk@desnews.com