Two of Utah’s victories over BYU in this century sent the Utes into major bowl games. Nothing the Utes did Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium technically moved them any closer to the Rose Bowl, but their stirring comeback will have its own distinction in the rivalry’s lore.
No. 18 Utah rallied from 20 points behind in the third quarter of a 35-27 victory, scoring touchdowns on four straight drives. Armand Shyne's 5-yard touchdown run and Matt Gay's extra point sent the Utes ahead 28-27 with 3:02 remaining, then Utah's John Penisini and Cody Barton stuffed a fourth-and-1 run on BYU's next possession.
Shelley delivered a 33-yard TD run on the very next play, leaving the Cougars with one last chance, trailing 35-27 with 1:43 remaining. BYU moved from its 25 to midfield, where Ute defenders Chase Hansen and Javelin Guidry stopped Cougar tight end Matt Bushman a yard short of the first-down marker with 21 seconds to play.
So a game that many observers had labeled meaningless, because of what's ahead for Utah, turned into one of the most unforgettable meetings in the rivalry's history.
The Utes (9-3) claimed an eighth straight victory in the series and maintained their momentum going into Friday’s Pac-12 championship game vs. Washington with a Rose Bowl berth at stake in Santa Clara, Calif. That’s a quick turnaround, following an emotional victory, but that’s better than the Utes having to regroup after what looked like a stunning defeat in the making.
In the end, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham called it “another rivalry game for the books,” adding, “What would you expect different from this game?”
That’s an interesting question, mixing in this decade’s history of close contests in the rivalry, even amid Utah’s eight-game reign. The Utes were heavy favorites to win again, yet they also had the psychological element of knowing they would play for the Pac-12 title six days later.
“Maybe we were a little lax,” said Ute cornerback Julian Blackmon, who produced his team’s first points with an interception return in the third quarter.
Even then, the Utes again trailed by 20 points before the turnaround took hold. The comeback was Utah’s biggest since battling back from 27-0 down to beat New Mexico in 1990.
Utah’s rally will long be remembered, especially considering how bleak things looked for the Utes as of midway through the third quarter. That’s when Matt Hadley’s second touchdown run of the night gave BYU a 27-7 lead.
And then “all of a sudden we were just back in the game,” Hansen said.
The Utes formerly slumbering offense answered with one TD march after another, with fourth-down conversions on two possessions. Jason Shelley’s 37-yard pass to Siaosi Mariner led to the go-ahead score by Shyne. Mariner seemingly had become Utah’s forgotten receiver this season, but he worked free for an easy completion to the 5-yard line.
The Utes finished with 296 yards, their second-lowest total of the season, but their 131-yard showing in the fourth quarter was timely. Shelley persevered through some tough times Saturday, living up to Whittingham’s "unflappable description. “Nothing seems to bother him,” the coach said.
Shelley became the second freshman quarterback to win the rivalry game, following Utah’s Darnell Arceneaux in 1997. BYU’s Zach Wilson almost earned that distinction, throwing two touchdown passes. But the Cougars' conservative approach worked against them in the fourth quarter, when they had two possessions with a lead.
Wilson finished with 277 total yards of passing and running to Shelley’s 202 yards, but the Cougars gained only 51 of their 357 yards in the fourth quarter.
The Cougars (6-6) had stunned Utah with a 20-0 halftime advantage, as Wilson performed brilliantly and the BYU defense blocked a field goal attempt after Utah drove past midfield for the only time of the half.
Wilson’s touchdown passes of 10 yards to Neil Pau’u and 25 yards to Bushman gave BYU a 13-0 lead in the first quarter. On the Cougars' last drive of the half, Wilson withstood a blitz and fired a 24-yard pass to Dallin Holker, leading to Matt Hadley’s 1-yard touchdown run.
BYU posted 247 yards to Utah's 86 in the first half, when the Utes' first four possessions netted only 33 yards. The Cougar defense stymied Shyne and pressured Shelley, even while failing to sack him in the first half.
The Utes had not fallen behind by more than seven points at halftime this season; they trailed Washington 14-7 in an eventual 21-7 loss in mid-September.
Utah’s defense responded early in the third quarter, when Blackmon picked off a Wilson pass and returned the interception 27 yards for a touchdown, making it 20-7.
The Cougars took advantage of Mitch Wishnowsky's snap-hooked, 10-yard punt by driving to another 1-yard TD run by Hadley, before the Ute offense produced its first points via Shelley's 10-yard TD pass to Samson Nacua.
BYU took a 27-14 lead into the final period, then Shyne's 2-yard TD run pulled the Utes to within 27-21 and they just kept coming.
And six days later, they’ll play a game that actually matters even more.