The play that redefined Utah cornerback Julian Blackmon’s season would have become a bigger story if his 27-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter fully had launched his team’s comeback from 20 points behind against BYU.
Instead, the Utes' circumstances had to get worse before they became permanently better.
The season that Utah hopes will end in the Rose Bowl took an unexpected turn in an eventual 35-27 victory Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. In the end, the nonconference game served as a snapshot of Utah’s Pac-12 schedule. BYU’s 20-0 halftime lead re-enacted the Utes' 0-2 start in conference play. Later, the Utes' 28-0 surge in four offensive possessions framed their November rally behind fill-in quarterback Jason Shelley to win the Pac-12 South title.
BYU led for nearly 53 minutes, making the Utes work for their eighth-straight victory in the rivalry. Ute coach Kyle Whittingham labeled it “another rivalry game for the books,” adding, “What would you expect different from this game?”
Blackmon’s first interception of the season temporarily cut BYU’s lead to 13 points and came with redemptive value, after he was beaten in coverage for Washington State’s winning touchdown in September.
“We never really worried,” Blackmon said. “As a whole team, we were always like, 'We got it.' It's good that there's two halves of football.”
The No. 17 Utes undoubtedly will have to show up for both halves Friday vs. No. 10 Washington in the Pac-12 championship game at Santa Clara, Calif.
The turnaround seems short after an emotional victory, but the Utes have done this before. Senior linebacker Chase Hansen promised to be ready. “Our first Pac-12 championship [game] is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” he said. “Really happy to win this one, but that’s the one we want.”
Twice in October, the Utes won Friday games after winning the previous Saturday. Whittingham in those instances spoke of a 12-hour celebration. This time, he said, “Might be in the office in about an hour, so we’ll see.”
Whittingham’s first documented destination in the early hours of Sunday was a burger stop.
• When the Utes finally got going, they were unstoppable.
That's their trend with Shelley, as the offense struggled in the third quarter vs. Oregon, at the start vs. Colorado and for two-plus quarters vs. BYU. The rivalry game was “everything that I expected,” Shelley said after Utah netted 90 yards from its first nine drives, then posted 211 yards while scoring those four touchdowns in a row.
The Utes had not come from 20 points down to win since 1990, when they beat New Mexico 29-27 after trailing 27-0.
• Much more consistency will be required against Washington, featuring the Pac-12′s No. 1-ranked defense. The Huskies held Utah to seven points and 261 yards in September, although part of the Utes' problems were their own doing: two lost fumbles after receptions in the third quarter and two blown scoring opportunities in the fourth period.
• The rivalry is partially restored. After allowing 277 yards of passing and running to BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, the Utes will spend the offseason knowing they’ll have to earn a record-tying ninth-straight win in the rivalry in August in Provo.
Player of the game
Shelley. The redshirt freshman looked skittish at times and his numbers were not outstanding, as he completed 19 of 28 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown and ran for 61 yards. Yet he responded well after the Utes trailed 27-7, leading TD drives of 75, 45 and 70 yards, then running 33 yards for a score on the first play after the defense made a fourth-down stop.
Whittingham credited Shelley with “a ton of poise, a ton of confidence,” adding, “Nothing seems to bother him.”
Runner-up: Hansen. He joined Javelin Guidry to stop BYU’s Matt Bushman a yard short of the first-down marker after a catch near midfield on the Cougars' last offensive play, ending Hansen’s Senior Night with 13 tackles. His three tackles for loss gave him 22½ for the season, even with his first-quarter ejection for targeting at Colorado.
Play of the game
Shelley and running back Armand Shyne share the award, after each player barely converted a fourth-down play via a rush during two of Utah's TD drives.
Honorable mention: Defensive tackle John Penisini (Utah’s highest-graded player this season, according to Pro Football Focus) and linebacker Cody Barton teamed to stop BYU’s Riley Burt for a 1-yard loss on fourth and 1, with the Utes leading 28-27.
Washington (9-3) qualified for the Pac-12 championship game by beating Washington State 28-15 on Friday, earning the North title. The Huskies never trailed in their 21-7 win at Utah in September, but they were not overwhelming, with 327 total yards. Jake Browning passed for 155 yards with one egregious interception, while Myles Gaskin ran for 143 yards. Other than a 38-yard TD run on the Huskies' first drive, though, Gaskin was held to 105 yards on 29 carries.
The winner likely will face Saturday’s Ohio State-Northwestern winner in the Rose Bowl. Former Utah coach Urban Meyer’s OSU team could qualify the College Football Playoff, making Michigan the Big Ten’s contestant in the Rose Bowl.
The next question is how far Utah might drop in the Pac-12′s bowl structure if it loses to Washington, but the Utes can dismiss that subject in 60 minutes Friday.