In coach Kyle Whittingham’s nine seasons, the Utah Utes have converted fourth-down plays a much higher rate than their opponents.
Surprising, I know.
The Utes’ failures and the opponents’ successes are much more memorable, even though Utah has converted 80 of 153 (.522) fourth-down plays and allowed 58 of 145 (.400) conversions in the Whittingham era. Most of the game-deciding plays came early in his career, such as the Utes being stopped at goal line late in games at Colorado State in 2005 and against Air Force in ’07, plus BYU’s fourth-and-18 pass from Max Hall to Austin Collie that led to the winning touchdown in ’07.
Amid all of the crazy occurrences in Saturday night’s 51-48 overtime loss to Oregon State, the Utes will remember giving up two fourth-down plays in the fourth quarter.
The most memorable play, even though it ultimately cost the Utes only three points, came with about 12 minutes left and the Beavers leading 34-31. On fourth-and 1 from the OSU 45, quarterback Sean Mannion handed off the ball, got it back via a lateral and fired a 48-yard pass to Brandin Cooks, who beat Ute cornerback Reggie Porter.
Whittingham marveled about "a lot of ballhandling" that went into a short-yardage play.
The killer play came with less than four minutes remaining. After the Utes had taken a 38-37 lead, OSU faced fourth-and-9 at its 22. The Beavers had only one timeout left, so coach Mike Riley chose not to punt.
If the Utes had made a stop, they could have run the clock inside two minutes and kicked a field goal for a four-point lead, at a minimum.
Instead, Mannion completed a 13-yard pass to Richard Mullaney, and the Beavers drove to a go-ahead touchdown - plus a two-point conversion.
So even though the Utes responded with a drive that ended with another touchdown run by quarterback Travis Wilson, the previous sequence meant that they were able only to force overtime in the eventual defeat.
The teams combined for three touchdowns in the last 4:25 of regulation. In recent history, only the 2006 Utah-BYU game produced more of an offensive flurry at the end, as the Utes and Cougars scored three TDs in the final 3:23. Each team’s last drive included a fourth-down conversion in that game.
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