BYU agonizes over another close rivalry game loss to Utah

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes offensive lineman Lo Falemaka (69) and offensive lineman Jackson Barton (70) celebrate as the Utes stop the Cougars on 4th down wth just seconds left in the game, giving Utah the victory, in football action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Utah Utes, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, November 24, 2018.

One of these years, BYU is going to run out of new ways to lose the rivalry game to Utah.

Until then, the agony will continue.

The Cougars blew a 20-point lead, giving up four unanswered touchdowns in the final 16 minutes of the game, and fell 35-27 to the Utes in front of 46,017 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“This one hurts,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “It is supposed to hurt, so you can remember it.”

Leading 27-7 after Matt Hadley’s fourth-down touchdown run from the 1 with 5:28 remaining in the third quarter, the Cougars got conservative on offense and sorely missed injured linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi on defense.

The result was one of the biggest meltdowns in rivalry history. Sitake acknowledged the Cougars “made way too many mistakes” and that the “injuries really hurt us,” but insisted on giving Utah (9-3) credit for the big comeback.

“I don’t want to sit here and say we failed to do all this stuff,” he said. “Utah is a great team. They are ranked and like I said, they won the Pac 12 South. We just made too many mistakes.”

The most costly one was a pick-six that freshman quarterback Zach Wilson threw to Julian Blackmon that flipped the game’s momentum and gave the Utes hope that they could rally back. Blackmon’s 27-yard touchdown return pulled the Utes to within 20-7 and ignited their sideline.

“We let it slip through our hands,” said BYU tight end Matt Bushman, who had six catches for 92 yards and a touchdown.

Sitake took his team to the movie “Creed II” on Friday night and relayed its message:

“If you’ve got nothing to lose, you’re really dangerous,” he said. “That should be a definition for us tonight.”

It was, until those fateful final 16 minutes.

Of all the closes losses the Cougars have endured at the hands of the Utes the last decade, this one might have been the most painful because BYU dominated the game for nearly three quarters. BYU played its best half of the season in taking a 20-0 lead at the break — better than in upsets of Arizona and Wisconsin when it was also a double-digit underdog.

“I believe our team is really close [to beating Utah],” Sitake said. “This has made us a closer team. We just have to build on it, as difficult as it is to accept the outcome of this game.”

It was Utah’s fourth pick-six against BYU in three games, and the comeback had begun, but not before the Cougars put together a gutty drive to answer the setback.

Then BYU started making mistakes, and Utah’s offense found its way.

“Toward the end, our guys got a little winded,” said Sitake, noting that the Cougars were playing third- and fourth-stringers after injuries sidelined Isaiah Kaufusi and others.

“We came out with energy and we came out with fight,” Bushman said. “We just didn’t keep that up in the second half.”

The Utes sandwiched 75- and 45-yard touchdown drives around a 15-yard punt by Rhett Almond and cut the Cougars’ lead to 27-21 with 10:53 remaining. Armand Shyne’s 5-yard touchdown run with just over three minutes remaining gave the Utes their first lead of the game.

Riley Burt was stuffed on a 4th-and-1 run, and Utah QB Jason Shelley ran 33 yards for the clincher with less than two minutes remaining.

“We felt really good with our defense and the way we were playing,” Sitake said. “I’m not sure if it was all conservative, just because they stopped us. It is not like we quit throwing the ball and all that stuff.”

Aside from the costly interception and inability to avoid sacks on the final two possessions, freshman quarterback Zach Wilson played brilliantly for BYU. He completed 20 of 29 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 91 yards before 18 yards in sack losses was counted in.

“Zach made some great plays,” Sitake said. “That’s a great defense he went against.”

BYU rushed for 153 yards — to 155 for Utah — and outgained the Utes 357-296, but none of that mattered as it fell for the eighth-straight time in the rivalry game.

“We have to make sure we play a full 60 minutes and get a win in this rivalry next year,” Sitake concluded.