A lot of the talk leading up to the 99th meeting on the football field between BYU and Utah — 93rd if you ascribe to BYU’s account — was about how the Pac-12 Utes were superior in talent, speed and athleticism and had left the Cougars in their rearview mirror. Injured Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley even tweeted that it is “not even a rivalry anymore” before quickly deleting the nonsense.
The talk again proved to have some merit to it — you simply don’t lose eight-straight games to a program you are on par with — while the Floridian’s view was laughed off by anyone who’s been paying attention. Seven of the eight games have been decided by single digits.
For the Cougars (6-6), a cold, hard fact emerged from Utah’s 35-27 victory after they gave up 20-0 and 27-7 leads in the second half. Utah simply has more depth than BYU does, and it used its deeper bench to wear down the visitors in the fourth quarter.
“Toward the end, our guys got a little winded,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said in the understatement of the night.
It was a giant red tsunami, and BYU didn’t have horses healthy enough to stem the tide. Ignited by Julian Blackmon’s pick-6 and exacerbated by game-ending injuries sustained by two of BYU’s best players — running back Matt Hadley and linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi — in the second half, once gasoline mixed with the spark, the Cougars were toast.
“We knew this was a team that was going to make a comeback, but we just needed to find a way to end it, and we couldn’t do that,” Sitake said.
After dropping to 0-3 against Utah, including a pair of razor-close games at Rice-Eccles, Sitake tried to downplay the injuries but did note that Utah receiver Siaosi Mariner’s 37-yard reception that set up Utah’s go-ahead touchdown came after Kaufusi’s replacement made a coverage mistake.
“It’s unfortunate for the seniors. We really wanted this for them,” Sitake said. “But [the returning players] have to wait less than a year. Luckily, we get this game early next year. We have to get ready for the bowl game. It’s important to the program, and it’s important to our youth and our depth.”
Depth, or lack thereof, that made a huge difference in a fourth-quarter meltdown as Utah overcame its largest deficit to BYU in series history.
Before the collapse, BYU was 98-1 in games in which it led by 20 or more points at halftime. Now it is 98-2.
• Maybe senior cornerback Michael Shelton was on to something when he said the Cougars play better away from home. They certainly did this season, except for the 35-7 loss at Washington. If BYU had played with as much energy and passion at LaVell Edwards Stadium as it played with at Arizona Stadium, Camp Randall and Rice-Eccles, the next takeaway wouldn’t even be an issue.
• Sitake mentioned going to a bowl several times in his postgame remarks, but that’s certainly not a given despite BYU’s relationship with ESPN, which owns 13 bowls and has promised to work with the Cougars to get them into a bowl after the bowl they were contracted to play in, the Poinsettia Bowl, folded in 2017. BYU is one of 81 bowl-eligible teams (82 if Virginia Tech beats Marshall next weekend). Problem is, there are only 78 spots, and an overwhelming majority will be gobbled up by conference tie-ins.
A BYU spokesperson said the Cougars likely won’t know if they will get a bowl bid, or where they will go if they do, until Sunday night.
• Corbin Kaufusi beat Gonzaga on the hardwoods three times, but couldn’t knock off the gridiron Utes in a splendid two-sport career. It wasn’t for lack of trying. BYU’s 6-foot-9 defensive giant won the hearts of Cougar fans everywhere by putting off ankle, elbow and finger surgery to take one last shot at Utah. He had four tackles in the first half before leaving the game momentarily with another injury.
Play of the Game
• Zach Wilson’s 24-yard pass to fellow freshman Dallin Holker on third-and-11 gave the Cougars the ball at the Utah 1 and set up the touchdown that allowed them to take a 20-0 lead, and all the momentum, into halftime. Instead of having to settle for a field goal there after Skyler Southam had hooked a PAT wide left earlier in the half, the Cougars got six and took a little more time off the clock so Utah’s offense couldn’t respond.
BYU had nine plays of 10 or more yards in the first half against a Utah defense that ranked No. 28 in the country in fewest plays of 10 yards or more allowed.
Player of the Game
• Zach Wilson. Despite all the emotional distractions, having grown up a Utah fan, Wilson didn’t play scared in the rivalry game. Wilson was fearless, poised and up to the challenge in every way imaginable. The running ability that won him the job over pocket-passer Tanner Mangum midway through the season was on full display, and kept several drives alive.
There are a couple of throws Wilson wishes he could have back — most notably the pick-6 by Blackmon — but the six-game starter threw for 204 yards and two touchdowns and ran for a game-high 73 yards.
A bowl game or a rematch? If the Cougars aren’t given a postseason berth, their next game will be Aug. 29, 30 or 31 at LaVell Edwards Stadium — against Utah.
“We’ll be ready for that,” Sitake said. And probably healthier.