August 17, 2007

#18: November 20, 1993 - Utah at BYU

HOW IS IT GREAT? Believe it or not there was actually a time when Utah couldn't win a game in Cougar Stadium. Before this game, Utah had lost the last ten times they played in Provo. Unfortunately, their record vs. the Coogs in SLC wasn't that great either -- they hadn't won since 1988, and 1978 before that. And having lost the last four meetings, Utah fans were beginning to wonder if they would have to wait till 1998 to see another Holy War victory.

This game was billed as a battle of two of the nation's best offenses. Utah (6-5, 4-3) ranked 8th in the nation in total offense coming into the game; BYU (5-4, 5-1) was ranked 9th in that same category. The Utes were led by QB Mike McCoy, whom Sports Illustrated had named the nation's offensive Player of the Week for the previous week. Utah's offense also featured RB Jamal Anderson and WR Bryan Rowley.

But fans and press expected this game to come down to defense. And while victory wasn't possible without great defensive efforts by Harold Lusk and Luther Elliss, the game actually came down to special teams -- Chris Yergensen in particular.

We all know the story . . . and the final score. And who could forget Lenny Gomes' post-game comments?

2007 RANKING: #13. Utah went on to win the next two meetings, and nine of the next thirteen against BYU. Indeed, the Utah-BYU rivalry hasn't been the same since this game, and neither has the Ute program. Because of the long-lasting effects of this win, I consider this win to be more significant than Arizona '72 and USU '60.

• "When you participate in sports, especially on a college level, you expect people to have a little bit of class.''
--BYU receiver Bryce Doman
in response to Utah players and fans attempting to
tear down BYU's goal posts after the win.

• "Typical Utah bullshit. All those (Utes) think that's all there is to life. But when I'm making $50,000-$60,000 a year, they'll be pumping my gas."
--BYU DL Lenny Gomes
demonstrating to the press what the Zoob definition of "class" is.

By Doug Robinson
Deseret News
November 21, 1993

When time expired and Utah had accomplished the impossible by beating BYU 34-31 right there on its own home turf Saturday afternoon in Provo, it ended one of the wildest games in the history of this long rivalry and began a celebration that was every bit its equal.

The Utes sprinted to the end zone, where they tried to topple the goalposts. The Cougars, headed toward their locker room at the other end of the stadium, reversed field and sprinted toward the Utes to save the goal posts and their honor. Joy threatened to turn into a post-game rumble with 65,894 witnesses, as players from both sides put their helmets back on and exchanged pushes and woofs. Then coaches and security restored order, and the celebration resumed. The Utes planted a large red and white flag in the stadium turf and mugged for cameras, the conquering Marines at Iwo Jima. If the Utes weren't exactly gracious winners, who could blame them? They had waited a long time for this moment. Most of them weren't even born when the Utes last beat the Cougars in Provo 21 years ago. It covered the entire length of LaVell Edwards' head coaching career.

When the long-awaited victory finally happened, it came in the unlikeliest ways - with a defense patched up with Band-Aids and built around a Little League game plan that was astonishingly simple; with two gimpy cornerbacks who played in pain, not quite recovered from injuries that had sidelined them for a month; with a wide receiver who had led the team in nothing except drops; and finally, with a kicker who was consulting a sideline psychologist when he wasn't missing kicks.

All the Utes' hopes came down to senior placekicker Chris Yergensen, and that wasn't much to bet on. Yergensen had already missed two of three field goal attempts and a PAT by kicking, in order, wide right, wide left and straight down the middle smack into the crossbar. Welcome to one man's nightmare. Wouldn't you know that with 25 seconds left and the score tied at 31, Yergensen would get the call.

Talk about pressure. Only twice in his life had he kicked with the game on the line, and both times he had blown it - once in a high school city championship game and again last year in the Copper Bowl.

Since the latter miss, Yergensen had been meeting regularly with the team psychologist, Dr. Evelyn Hall, trying to improve his mental toughness, but for a time on Saturday it seemed to have made little difference. After slipping on the turf during warmup kicks, Yergensen tried slowing his approach to the ball to ensure a better plant, but it cost him power and timing. He missed from 35 yards, made a 41-yarder, then missed a 37-yarder and the PAT. Calling Dr. Hall.

And then the Utes found themselves faced with a fourth-and-10 on the 37-yard line and time running out. There was no other choice. Not only would Yergensen have to try another field goal attempt, he'd have to do it from 55 yards out, which would be the longest of his career.

"Hey, coach, Yergensen can do it,'' wideout Greg Hoffman assured coach Ron McBride on the sideline. "He's kicked 56- and 61-yarders in practice. He'll kick this through.''

And so he did. This time Yergensen sent his kick toward the right goal post, hoping it would curve left. It did, splitting the uprights perfectly. Later, in the locker room, Yergensen put his arm around McBride. "I finally got one for you,'' he said. "Finally I can hug you on good terms after a game.''

And finally Utah's victory over BYU - only their third in two decades - was for more than in-state pride. It gave the Utes a 7-5 regular-season record and a solid shot at a berth in either the Freedom or Copper bowls. As for their part, the Cougars are 5-5 overall, but, with a 5-2 league record, they could still claim a share of the conference title and a bowl berth.

"This has been a burden on our backs for a lot of years,'' said McBride. "This is the biggest win of my life.''

All this for a win over a .500 team? Such is the nature of a rivalry.

Utah wasn't given much of a chance to win Saturday's game, going up against BYU's prolific offense and quarterback John Walsh. Not with a secondary that had lost eight starters to injuries. For weeks the Utes have survived with a quarterback and a tailback in the secondary, but that wouldn't do against BYU. They went to the training room to find Mark Swanson and Ernest Boyd, who had been sidelined for weeks with shoulder and ankle injuries, respectively. They practiced on a limited basis during the week, but not enough to allow the Utes to assemble a complete game plan.

The Utes entered Saturday's game with a defensive game plan that consisted of two blitzes, one zone coverage and no man coverage. That was it. "There was no time to put in a lot of the things we wanted to,'' said defensive coordinator Fred Whittingham.

Boyd and Swanson started at the cornerback spots, allowing Harold Lusk to move to safety and Cedric Crawford to nickel. "That took a lot of courage for Swanson and Boyd to play,'' said Whittingham. "They were hurting.''

The gamble paid off. The Utes intercepted Walsh five times - one by Swanson, two by Boyd and two by Lusk. Give an assist to the defensive line, which sacked Walsh four times and pressured him all day. Walsh completed 35 of 57 passes for 423 yards and 1 touchdown.

"The defense played its best game of the year,'' said McBride.

The offense wasn't bad, either. The Utes collected 629 yards behind the running of Jamal "Big Rig'' Anderson (32 carries, 146 yards) and quarterback Mike McCoy (29 of 47, 434 yards, 3 TDs, 2 interceptions). They surprised the Cougs by passing from running sets, with two tight ends, and took advantage of BYU's deep drops by dumping off short passes under the coverage to mismatch Anderson or Pierre Jones on a linebacker.

On the fourth play of the game, Jones turned a short swing pass into a 47-yard gain to set up the first score - a 4-yard pass to Rowley (which gave him a career school record of 25). After BYU's Joe Herrick answered with a 36-yard field goal, the Utes drove 80 yards for another score - on a 9-yard pass to Anderson - and a 14-3 lead.

The Cougars, playing without the injured Eric Drage and Jamal Willis, scored on a 4-yard touchdown pass to Bryce Doman, but just before the half Yergensen kicked a 41-yard field goal to give Utah a 17-10 halftime lead.

The Cougars turned to the ground game in the second half, which is to say Kalin Hall, and tied the score at 17 on a 1-yard run by Walsh. That was where matters stood early in the fourth quarter, when the Utes had the ball at their own 16-yard line. From the shotgun formation McCoy read blitz. He audibled for blitz protection from his blockers, then took the snap.

Curtis Marsh, a junior who had dropped more passes than he had caught this season (6 total), was wide open on a streak rout, but McCoy had no time to look for him. "I just caught it and threw it up there,'' said McCoy. "There was no time to find the laces.''

Marsh caught the ball without breaking stride and raced 84 yards for the touchdown. Yergensen's missed PAT left Utah with a 23-17 lead. The miss loomed bigger when Hall scored on a 4-yard run and Harrick's PAT gave BYU a 24-32 lead with 10 minutes left.

The fireworks were just beginning. With 4:39 left, Anderson scored on a 4-yard run and then caught the two-point conversion pass. With 3:16 left, Walsh scored on a 1-yard run, and the game was tied again, at 31.

That set the stage for Yergensen's game-winning kick. Ironically, after Yergensen missed the PAT early in the fourth quarter, McCoy had told him, "Don't worry about it. You're going to have a chance to win this game.''

For years to come the Cougars will remember their squandered opportunities, namely a second down at the half-yard line that reaped only a field goal and Hema Heimuli's fumble at the 2-yard line.

"We just didn't play like I hoped,'' said BYU coach LaVell Edwards. "All we can do is regroup and hope to get a piece of the championship . . . There are all kinds of ifs. We had a golden opportunity and let it get away.''

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