JORDAN RHODES made the most of an unexpected starting opportunity as Town dug deep to clinch a highly encouraging three-point haul.
Down on the teamsheet as a substitute, he was promoted to the starting XI after Gary Roberts withdrew after feeling ill during the warm-up.
And the 21-year-old top scorer, who signed a new contract through to 2015 on the eve of the match at the Memorial Ground, needed just five minutes to make it 18 goals for the season.
Rhodes might have had a hat trick, because he fired over an open goal from the rebound after Joey Gudjonsson hit a post seven minutes later, then had a 54th-minute penalty saved.
But there was no doubting the quality of his successful strike, slotted past keeper Conrad Logan with his less-favoured left foot after a neat nod-on by Benik Afobe.
And it proved enough to beat a Bristol Rovers side desperate to deliver on Stuart Campbell’s first home match as caretaker manager.
The West Country team will feel aggrieved after having two goals disallowed by stand-in referee Chris Powell during a frantic finale.
The Dorset-based assistant put down his flag and took up the whistle after Wiltshire official Brendan Malone came off injured in the 77th minute.
Malone’s willingness to let the game flow in the face of some crunching challenges hadn’t gone down well with the home fans in a 7,380 crowd, Rovers’ second-highest of the season.
But Powell was even less popular after chalking off James Tunnicliffe’s deflected long throw, for a foul on keeper Alex Smithies, and skipper Will Hoskins’ close-range shot, for offside.
Before their late push, however, Rovers had been so well contained by resolute Town that their only real efforts on goal were from outside the penalty area.
Those on target, first-half shots by Chris Lines and Gavin Williams and a long- distance drive by Danny Senda in the 74th minute, were well dealt with by Smithies.
And the stopper made a superb save from Lines before Hoskins thumped the loose ball into the roof of the net only to have his celebrations cut short.
By that stage Aidan Chippendale, had been handed a debut. Chippendale had originally been 19th man but came on to the subs bench after Roberts pulled out.
And there was also a useful cameo appearance from Alan Lee, whose aerial prowess provided a vital frontline outlet as Town tried their best to break up Bristol’s late momentum.
Over the whole 90, it was Scott Arfield who really caught the eye as Town proved they can win without the creative talents of Roberts and the unfortunate Anthony Pilkington and the bite of the suspended Lee Peltier.
Playing on the left, the industrious Scot both defended and attacked with aplomb, and was quick to back up the midfield work of Kevin Kilbane and Gudjonsson.
While Gudjonsson was unlucky not to count with the curling shot which hit Logan’s left-hand post (he also had a second-half strike saved) it was Arfield’s surging run which led to the penalty.
His cross was spilled by Logan and diverted by the outstretched arm of centre-back Danny Coles before the keeper redeemed himself by blocking Rhodes’ spot kick with his legs.
That was a blow for Lee Clark’s men, but the continued determination to keep a clean sheet was clear as they hit the top two for the first time since January, made it three wins from four, and equalled the fourth-best unbeaten league run in Town’s history.