Whew! Utes fend off No. 15 Pitt in OT
In a game that was wild and unpredictable from the opening kickoff, it was fitting Thursday that a former star high school quarterback delivered the play of the game for the Utah Utes by making an interception.
Brian Blechen, the only true freshman to start for the Utes, made an interception in overtime to set up a winning field goal by Joe Phillips to give the Utes a 27-24 overtime win Thursday over No. 15 Pitt in front of 45,730 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
"I hope you got your money's worth," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said while his team celebrated the win in the locker room.
Who could complain? While the season opener for both teams left plenty to be desired in the way of polished football, the much-hyped rematch of the 2005 Fiesta Bowl met all expectations, at least in the way of entertainment value.
As for the actual plays on the field nothing went as planned outside of kicker Joe Phillips' dependability.
Phillips, a former walk-on who was the most accurate in the MWC in 2009 making 20 of 22 field goals, delivered a 21-yard field goal in overtime to seal the win.
"I told the team and offense before the game if they needed me, I'd be there for them," he said. "I can't describe the feeling, it's awesome."
The win extended Utah's home winning streak to 18 games, the third longest such streak in the country, and gave the Utes their fourth-straight home victory over a ranked team.
"It was a huge start to the season," Whittingham said. "It was only one game, so you can't get too excited, but it was a heck of a start for the guys."
The Utes were eager to unveil their beefed up and varied offense in the opener, but instead won in a way fans have probably come to expect by now as a young and unproven defense shut down one of college football's top power offenses.
Put a hold on that Dion Lewis for Heisman campaign, he made a flashy move here and there but the sophomore who rushed for 1,799 yards in 2009 was held to a career-low 75 yards on 25 carries by the Utes.
Most of his productivity came in the first quarter when he rushed nine times for 42 yards.
"He is a great running back, we just made plays when we had to," linebacker Chaz Walker said.
Utah's offense made its share of plays too, with quarterback Jordan Wynn going 21 of 36 for 283 yards and three touchdowns. DeVonte Christopher led the receivers with eight catches for 155 yards and a touchdown and Jereme Brooks had five catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns.
Running back Matt Asiata ran 16 times for 66 yards to lead the rushing attack.
However, the offense also had its issues, finishing with three turnovers to put the defense in a bind.
"We can't do that," Wynn said. "That is something we need to go back and correct."
The defense was able to overcome the mistakes, shutting down Lewis, thus putting quarterback Tino Sunseri under pressure.
The sophomore getting his first start never had time to get comfortable with Pitt's line proving no match for Utah's defenders. He finished 16 of 28 for 184 yards and a touchdown, but was sacked twice and didn't find his rhythm until the end of the game when Pitt rallied to force overtime.
Sunseri was 8 of 14 for 57 yards through the first three quarters and 8 of 13 for 127 yards in the fourth quarter alone when he led the Panthers back from a 24-13 deficit with seven minutes to go. He threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Jon Baldwin and led the Panthers down the field to set up the tying 30-yard field goal to force overtime.
Of course, the way the night was going, not even that kick went as planned. The Utes called timeout twice before Dan Hutchins kicked. The first time the kick would have been good, the second went wide to the left.
"I thought, 'I'm a stupid idiot,'" Whittingham said about his decision to call timeout again as he saw the kick go wide.
He could say that with a laugh though, since Blechen came through after Hutchins made his third attempt.
Blechen's interception came on the first play of overtime as he stepped in front of a pass by Sunseri and headed for the Utah sidelines where he was mobbed by teammates.
"I tried to get in the right spot and I looked up and he was throwing it," he said. "I went after it and caught it."
It could very well be the play of his career. It was at least the defensive highlight of the night.
"We hung in there and kept battling and playing with a never say die attitude," Whittingham said. "We kept pushing them and pushing them through camp and they never broke or complained and kept working hard."
R In short • The Utes extend their home winning streak to 18 games by upending Pitt.
Key moment • Joe Phillips kicks the winning field goal in overtime from 21 yards out.
Key stat • Pitt's Dion Lewis was held to just 75 yards on 25 carries.