Utah defeated bitter rival BYU Saturday night in just another chapter in the Utah/BYU saga, which oozes drama and controversy annually.
"I don't know if you'd find a rivalry in the country that has had the drama that this one's had for the last 15 to 20 years," observed Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. "I could be wrong, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find one."
For a rivalry game, Saturday night's nationally televised contest was rather mundane, up until the waning seconds that is. At that point, the full Utah/BYU experience exploded, revealing the very essence of the rivalry exploded.
"I can't describe that [ending]. I'm going to remember that until I'm 85 years old, with Alzheimer's," said Utah's starting quarterback Jon Hays of the wild ending to Saturday's game. "That was unbelievable. It was the craziest ending I might have ever seen."
Difficult to summarize in print, the game's final 1:11 might have been the wildest ride in recent college football history. The final BYU drive started at their own eight yard line, with BYU conservatively gaining small chunks of yardage to achieve a first down at their own 21 yard line. That's where the fun began.
Utah stopped the BYU offense on three consecutive plays, starting with a sack by linebacker David Fagergren, who had seven tackles on the night, including the sack on BYU's Riley Nelson. Two incomplete passes by Nelson found BYU staring at a 4th & 12 with roughly 30 seconds remaining in the contest.
True to the spirit of the rivalry, Utah gave up a huge 4th down play, a 47 yard completion to the game's leading receiver Cody Hoffman, who was tackled on the Utah 34 yard line.
Corner Moe Lee was the defender that gave up the big play versus Hoffman, and could make no excuses.
"I just lost my eyes. I thought the quarterback was going to get sacked, and I stopped my back-pedal," explained Lee. "He got behind me and I just made a mistake and I'm glad it didn't cost the team."
The costly mistake nearly did cost his team, but the football gods intervened Saturday night. Not for lack of trying on the parts of many parties, however. On first and ten from the Utah 34, Nelson threw two incomplete passes, with the second looking as if the contest was over following the incompletion. After a long delay, the officials determined that one second remained on the game clock. After the field was cleared by rushing Utah fans celebrating what they thought was a victory, BYU was given the opportunity to kick a field goal from a reasonable distance of 46 yards.
The field goal attempt failed as Ute defensive lineman Star Lotulelei was credited with the block, which was recovered by BYU's JD Falslev who attempted to advance the ball. Simultaneously, the Utah student section rushed the field, prematurely, as it turned out.
After a delay in sorting out the play call by the officials, and clearing the field of ecstatic Ute fans, the end result was a Utah penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, affording BYU yet another opportunity to kick the tying field goal, moving the ball to the Utah 19 for what looked to be a sure-thing kick.
Try number two found Riley Stephenson attempting the next kick from 36 yards out, which thudded into the left upright, falling limply to the ground, finally, officially, sealing the game for the Utes.
Mayhem ensued on the field, as Utah fans finally had their chance to rush the field, for the third and final time of the night.
"I guess the only thing better than storming the field is storming the field three times," said an ecstatic Westlee Tonga, who snatched a Hays pass out of the air for Utah's first score in the first quarter.
"We should be 4-1, because we won that thing three times," quipped Whittingham in his post-game press conference.
As the end result turned out in their favor, Whittingham and his players praised Utah fans for their passion and support.
"I think they're the best fans in the nation," said Whittingham, echoing sentiments to similar effect from Jon Hays, Dres Anderson and Moe Lee.
Prior to the wild finish, however, the beginning of the game was a sloppy affair that was neither flattering nor helpful for either school's image on the national stage.
Rather than style points, though they might have been nice, both teams really needed a victory for different reasons.
While that was certainly the case, neither team played like it had much to lose, or gain for that matter. Combined, the teams were penalized 10 times for 67 yards in the first half alone, which was just over half of BYU's total offensive output of 119 yards in the opening half. 53 of those yards came off the Cougars' opening drive. That BYU finished the half tied was a gift, and BYU took advantage, gaining steam as the half wore on.
Utah's half certainly started out more promising, with Jon Hays looking sharp, and completing tough passes in the face of pressure, even taking hits as he released the ball, but ended with 142 yards of offense to end the half.
More than a lack of yardage were the things that don't get counted on the stat sheet; missed tackles and dropped passes. The former were too numerous to keep track of for the Ute defense and special teams and Ute wide receivers didn't help Hays, dropping five very good balls with a handful that will go down as could-have-beens for the Utes.
Hays would finish the half 13-21 for 112 yards, which could-have-been 18-21 for more yards than 112, and probably a touchdown. Hays would finish with an 18-27 performance netting 196 yards passing, 2 touchdowns and 21 yards of rushing that was negated by sacks to equate to negative yardage, ultimately ending with -1 yards. Hays improved to 7-3 as a starter at Utah with the victory.
"Offensively, we did not get a lot of yards, but we did not turn the football over," said Whittingham. "You're not going to lose a lot of games when you don't turn the ball over."
Defensively, Utah had missed opportunities forcing five fumbles but recovering zero. In total, Utah has forced nine fumbles on the season and through halftime had yet to recover a single fumble; a troubling fact that would change in the second half.
BYU scored late in the half off a badly shanked Sean Sellwood punt, setting the Cougars up at the Utah 30 late in the second quarter. Sellwood had been the one consistency on special teams through two games, even leading the nation in punting coming into Saturday's game.
Under the pressure of the rivalry game, Sellwood would set up BYU's only score of the half, notching things up at 7-7.
BYU received the ball to start the second half, having deferred after winning the opening toss, and both teams came out stagnant offensively, trading short, ineffective drives.
On BYU's second possession of the half, Utah forced a bfumble and recovered it on a play that would later be overturned with the ball going back to BYU as an incomplete pass.
With the ball and swing in momentum, BYU looked to take advantage, completing a 16 yard pass putting them into Utah territory and appeared to be marching. Seven plays later, the tide of the entire game would turn indeed, but in Utah's favor as corner Mo Lee recovered a BYU fumble 47 yards for touchdown that would put Utah up 17-7 late in the third quarter.
"Once my teammates got there for the sack, we practiced scoop and score drills all week long in practice," said Lee of the pivotal play. "I just happened to be the last man there and then just ran for my life."
Utah would score again in the final seconds of the third quarter with a quick-strike, three play touchdown to Dres Anderson, who suffered multiple, key drops earlier in the game, to go up 24-7 heading into the fourth quarter.
Instead of putting BYU away, Utah allowed their visiting foes to score two touchdowns in the fourth, giving them momentum and setting up the potential tying field goal attempt(s).
The Utes did enjoy many positives, however, with several young, un-tested players contributing significantly in Saturday's victory.
True freshman Jeremiah Poutasi got his first start in his collegiate career, and isn't likely to experience anything like Saturday's victory over BYU ever again. With an offensive line under fire as Utah's was coming into the game, Poutasi's performance was solid and drew praise from his head coach post-game.
"True freshman Jeremiah Poutasi started at right tackle. Played the whole game at right tackle," said Whittingham. "True freshman, first college experience. Came in and held down the fort and did a great job."
Another key performance for the Utes was backup safety Tyron Morris-Edwards who filled in for the injured starter, Eric Rowe. The walk on receiver turned safety tied for a team-high 8 tackles on the night, made some big plays and most importantly, didn't give up any big ones to a potentially lethal Cougar air attack.
"We're playing with our backup safeties, with Eric Rowe and Brian Blechen out. Our backup safeties performed outstanding," praised Whittingham. "So many guys and so many gutty performances. So many guys that stepped up and picked up the slack for guys that were missing. We saw so many positive things tonight in terms of character and determination."
While the Utes undoubtedly have many things yet to address and resolve, the Utes will happily take this win and try to parlay it into momentum heading into Pac-12 play next Saturday in Tempe, as they face Arizona State.