The Utah-BYU rivalry game had so many twists and storylines this week, why not carry the theme of unpredictability into the game until the final seconds clicked away?
Underdogs on their own field after losing at Utah State last week, the Utes entered Saturday’s rivalry bent on avoiding a loss that would have given them the unwanted designation of being just the third-best team in the state.
While they might have had the motivation, they were short on key players with quarterback Jordan Wynn announcing he was giving up on football after suffering a fourth shoulder injury, running back John White being sidelined with an ankle injury and starting safety Eric Rowe out with a hamstring injury.
So it seemed perfectly reasonable then that among the heroes of Saturday’s 24-21 win over the BYU Cougars in front of 45,563 at Rice-Eccles Stadium was a quarterback many Utah fans probably never expected to see on the field again after the 2011 season, a corner who was exploited several times in last week’s loss to Utah State and an upright that often seemed jinxed against the Utes.
It wasn’t until a 36-yard field goal attempt at the end of the game hit the left upright that the Utes could celebrate the win, officially anyway.
The Utes thought the game was over when BYU quarterback Riley Nelson’s final pass fell incomplete, only for referees to rule 1 second remained. They thought it was over again when a 51-yard field goal attempt by Justin Sorenson was blocked. But officials penalized the Utes because fans rushed the field while the play was still in progress, giving BYU one last chance to send the game into overtime.
Instead, Riley Stephenson’s kick went left and bounced to the turf allowing the Utes to celebrate what will go down as one of the most memorable victories in the rivalry.
Kudos to the underdogs on the Utes’ team, they deserved it. Quarterback Jon Hays, who went 6-3 as a starter in place of Wynn last year, resumed the role on Saturday and notched what must go down as a career highlight for the senior. Remember, this is a guy two years ago who didn’t have a program to play for after Nebraska-Omaha dropped its football program.
On Saturday, he played as well as the Utes could have hoped, going 18 of 27 for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
The highlight for him was a 39-yard touchdown pass to Dres Anderson that put the Utes up 24-7 with 57 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
The Hays-to-Anderson pass came just moments after Utah corner Moe Lee picked up a BYU fumble and streaked down the center of the field for a 47-yard touchdown run. That play was one of several solid efforts by Lee, who had one of his worst games against the Aggies last week.
The win not only allowed the Utes to regain a little dignity after last week’s upset to the Aggies, but it also gave the Utes a decided edge in the rivalry.
After losing two of his first three meetings with the Cougars, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has now won the last three meetings, and four of the last five, to gain the upper hand against his former school.
Perhaps most disturbing for BYU fans is the Utes were about as vulnerable on Saturday as they could ever be going into the rivalry game.
If the Cougars couldn’t beat the Utes when they had a new quarterback, a hurt running back and a missing starter in the secondary, will they ever gain an edge against their old foe again?
That is a question BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall will have to answer in the coming days.
Meanwhile, new Utah offensive coordinator Brian Johnson answered questions of his own, namely, how creative could he get? Evidently creative enough to beat the Cougars. He did so by dialing up several little-used players’ numbers. Reggie Dunn, who dropped key passes against Utah State, redeemed himself with his play in the first half Saturday catching four balls for 27 yards.
H-back Max Moala had a 19-yard catch and the Utes used sophomore Lucky Radley for the first time at running back.
The Utes also faked a punt on fourth-and-2 from their 24-yard line with tight end Jake Murphy rushing for four yards.
In the end, the Utes managed just 49 yards on the ground. In the end, it didn’t matter.
The Utes got their win, as unpredictable as it was.
R IN SHORT • The Utes win their third consecutive game against rival BYU.
Key moment • After Justin Sorensen’s 51-yard field goal attempt is blocked, Riley Stephenson gets a re-try 15 yards closer, but misses off the upright.