BYU-Utah: Special teams often determine rivalry game winner
Provo • After last year's epic football meltdown by BYU, or glorious gridiron butt-kicking by Utah depending on one's perspective and with the rivalry slated to go on hiatus in 2014 and 2015, the Utes and Cougars owe us something special on Saturday when they renew acquaintances at Rice-Eccles Stadium, don't they?
It will be the last Utah-BYU game in Salt Lake City until 2016.
Speaking of special, when the two bitter rivals meet, special teams almost always have a significant impact on the outcome. With oddsmakers saying the game will be razor-close BYU is a slight favorite, despite last year's 54-10 humiliation in Provo the difference could be a late field goal, or a missed PAT, a long kickoff return or a blocked punt.
Already, special teams have played a big role in one of Utah's games, that 27-20 overtime loss to Utah State last Friday in which the Aggies scored on a blocked punt and escaped in regulation when the Utes had a bad snap prior to a 52-yard field goal try.
And two years ago, special teams was the difference in Utah's win over the Cougars: Brandon Burton flew in from the left side and got a hand on Mitch Payne's 42-yard field goal attempt as time expired, preserving the Utes' 17-16 victory.
"A few years ago, [special teams] were a big factor, but in most years it hasn't been as big a factor as the last-second heroics," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "I know there was a blocked field goal and one missed, but I don't think it has been a big factor."
Actually, they've been a bigger factor than Whittingham remembers. Often, special teams plays have swung momentum early in the game, like last year when BYU messed up a kickoff return.
"In rivalry games, there is no room for error," said BYU special teams captain, David Foote. "You have to bring a focus out there every time, because the tiniest mistake can change a game."
Especially in this game, when emotions are on edge and every play is magnified, every mistake remembered from now through eternity.
"The average fan doesn't put a lot of importance on special teams," Foote said. "They are more concerned with the offense and defense. But if you pay attention to special teams, that is where games are won and lost."
After all, BYU and Utah fans will never forget Utah's "block party" after Burton's big block, or the look on then-Utah coach Ron McBride's face, and LaVell Edwards' outstretched arms in 1998, when Ryan Kaneshiro's 32-yard field goal attempt clanked off the right goalpost as time expired, allowing the Cougars to escape with a 26-24 win.
Here's a closer look at 10 memorable games in the BYU-Utah series in which special teams blunders or heroics have impacted the outcome:
2010: Utah 17, BYU 16
Utah's Brandon Burton slips past BYU tight end Devin Mahina and blocks Mitch Payne's 42-yard field goal attempt after Jake Heaps drives the Cougars to the Utah 22-yard line in the final two minutes. Also, BYU is controlling the game until a weak Utah punt hits walk-on B.J. Peterson in the leg. The Utes recover and go on to score.
2009: BYU 26, Utah 23 (OT)
Before BYU quarterback Max Hall throws the game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass to Andrew George in overtime and goes on his "I hate Utah" postgame rant, Utah kicker Joe Phillips of Lone Peak High, a BYU recruiting hotbed, keeps the Utes in the game by making five field goals.
2006: BYU 33, Utah 31
BYU quarterback John Beck's touchdown pass to Jonny Harline on the final play of the game wins it, but only after a blocked PAT earlier in the game means the Cougars have to try for a touchdown rather than tie it with a field goal. Also, the Cougars have a 14-0 lead and are dominating early, only to see Utah's Louie Sakoda turn the game around with a beautifully executed fake punt that goes for 18 yards and a first down.
2003: Utah 3, BYU 0
In a late-November game played in a fierce snowstorm and bitter cold temperatures in Provo, Utah's Bryan Borreson kicks a 41-yard field goal with 8:43 left in second quarter for the contest's only points. BYU's Toby Christensen fumbles away a punt to keep BYU from having a last chance. Down to its fourth-string quarterback due to injuries, BYU has its NCAA-record 361-game scoring streak snapped.
1999: Utah 20, BYU 17
Kevin Feterik becomes (and still is) BYU's only senior quarterback to lose to Utah since LaVell Edwards took over the program in 1972. The Cougars blow two field-goal opportunities one is blocked and Owen Pochman is wide right on a 38-yarder with eight minutes remaining and Utah celebrates wildly in Provo.
1998: BYU 26, Utah 24
BYU takes a seemingly insurmountable 26-17 lead with 2:41 left, but Utah's Daniel Jones returns the ensuing kickoff 95 yards to cut the lead to two. Utah gets ball back and drives to BYU's 15-yard-line, only to see Ryan Kaneshiro's 32-yard field goal attempt carom off the right goalpost. "Doink," is BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian's description.
1994: Utah 34, BYU 31
BYU goes ahead 31-27 with 2:15 remaining, but freshman Cal Beck returns the ensuing kickoff 67 yards to the BYU 32 and Utah scores with 56 seconds left to take the lead when Ute QB Mike McCoy throws a 20-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Brown.
1993: Utah 34, BYU 31
Utah beats BYU in Provo for the first time in 21 years as Chris Yergensen kicks the game-winning field goal from 55 yards out, the longest of his career, as time expires. That after Yergensen, with his own private psychologist on the sidelines, misses two shorter field goals earlier in the game.
1953: Utah 33, BYU 32
The Utes are whopping 24-point favorites in front of a national television audience on Thanksgiving Day, but BYU hangs tough and pulls within a point with 90 seconds remaining when Henry West throws a 32-yard TD pass to Phil Oyler. But the hard-luck Cougars leave Salt Lake City empty-handed and not-so-thankful when they miss the PAT.
1942: BYU 12, Utah 7
Winless against the Utes the first 20 years of the rivalry, BYU blocks a punt at Utah's 10-yard-line and Herman Longhurst scores from the 3-yard line four plays later, setting off a massive celebration in Provo in coach Floyd Millet's first, and only, season at the helm.
BYU at Utah
P Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • ESPN2