August 16, 2007

#19: November 4, 1972 - Utah vs. Arizona

HOW IS IT GREAT? This is the greatest comeback in the history of Utah football, and one of the biggest College Football has ever witnessed.

After three quarters, the Utes were losing to the Wildcats, 27-0. Fans made for the exits. Even after two quick TD passes from Don "Brownie" Van Galder to Steve Odom that made the score 27-14 with 12 minutes left, reporters were leaving the press box to get to the locker rooms for the post-game reactions.

But the story didn't end there. As you can read from the SLTrib's write-up, fans who stayed till the end would yet witness missed field goals, a Utah turnover-on-downs, a dramatic Steve Marshall interception, and an epic finish that gave Utah the win with only seconds left on the clock.

With this victory, Utah was on track to win at least a share of the WAC and in the driver's seat to clinch a bid to the second-annual Fiesta Bowl game. All they had to do was beat BYU (5-4, 3-2) (after an OOC game vs. USU in Logan -- which the Utes lost), whom the Utes had beaten four years in a row. Then they closed the season against CSU (1-9). Unfortunately, the Cougs beat the Utes, 16-7. Utah finished the season 6-5, 5-2 and tied for second in the WAC. They had to wait six years to get their revenge on BYU and 31 years for another chance to play in the Fiesta Bowl. The disappointing end to the 1972 season spelled doom for Coach Bill Meek, who stuck around for one final season as a lame-duck coach while the University attempted to secure the services of Larry Wilson as his successor.

2007 RANKING: #14. This game could have easily ranked higher on the countdown. It remains one of the most unlikely finishes in NCAA football history. But because 1972 and 1973 are now remembered as a prelude to "The Dark Ages," the sensational finish gets forgotten, and the game goes down in the stat books as just a 1-point win over an Arizona team that finished the season 4-7.

• From "Marcroft's Memories," Continuum (Fall 2003):
The 1972 game with then-WAC foe Arizona stands out. "It was the greatest comeback in NCAA history," [Bill] Marcroft notes. "Utah was down 27-0 after three quarters. [Don] Van Galder passes to [Steve] Odom for two touchdowns to cut the lead, but Arizona starts a time-consuming drive. Then [Steve] Marshall ("possibly the best athlete to ever play at Utah") intercepts a pass and makes an incredible runback for a touchdown. It's now 27-21. Utah holds on defense, gets the ball, and starts a drive. With no time outs left, Van Galder dives in the end zone with 10 seconds left to win 28-27. Just an unbelievable comeback."
• Where Are They Now?: Mr. Don Van Galder

• From the (October 12) 1974 Utah-Arizona Game Program, page 4 (Click image to enlarge):


By John Mooney
Salt Lake Tribune
November 5, 1972

A publisher is re-issuing the stories of Frank Merriwell, the mythical hero who won every athletic event with his last second heroics.

In some areas, Merriwell's feats may be unbelievable. But not in Uteville after the well-whipped Redskins overcame a 27-point deficit in the fourth quarter to snatch a 28-27 cardiac caper from league-leading Arizona Saturday afternoon.

It was a football finale you had to see to believe, and, unfortunately, only 19,238 fans saw the heroics which made this the most fantastic wind up in any football game I have seen in more than 40 years in the wars.

Down 27-0

Utah was a soundly whipped football team when the fourth quarter opened with Arizona coasting with a deserved 27-0 lead.

Utah had done little right offensively, beginning in the opening minutes of the game when the Utes couldn't score in four shots from the two-yard line.

Don Van Galder seemed to be playing in a daze. His passes were erratic and those that might have been caught were dropped frequently.

Utah's runners weren't consistent and the Ute defense was being chewed to bits.

Arizona all but had its bags packed for Tempe and the Fiesta Bowl Dec. 23 and many of the Ute fans were looking toward the exits.

Van Galder finally drew the fans to their feet with a 52-yard touchdown bomb to Steve Odom, who juggled it, finally grabbed the ball and scampered home free.

That trimmed the margin to 27-7 with 14:42 to play in the game.

Defense Toughens

Utah's defense forced a punt. Van Galder came back to hit Odom with a 35-yard touchdown missile, to cut it to 27-14 with 12:29 to play.

But then Arizona's offense held the ball for more than five minutes before Charlie Gorham was short on a 46-yard field goal try with 7:17 to play.

Utah couldn't sustain an offensive and a fourth down pass was dropped, giving Arizona the ball on Utah's 46.

Arizona picked up a first down on the Utah 32 and appeared to have the victory cinched with a chance at a fourth down field goal if the first down couldn't be gained.

Arizona was called for offside and on second and 14, Bill Demory threw a pass. Steve Marshall, who has a Merriwell flair of his own, intercepted on the dead run and with a screen of blockers, galloped 68 yards for the score. Flemming Jensen, who kicked all four of Utah's extra points, narrowed the lead to 27-21.

But only 4:19 remained to play and Arizona had the ball on its 20.

Again, Defense

The defense forced the Wildcats to punt from their 25 but only 2:20 remained when the Utes started to move from their 29.

Odom took a screen pass for 10. Willie Armstead grabbed a pass for 27 yards. Odom gained four on the screen, but only 1:06 remained and the ball was still 21 yards from the goal.

Armstead grabbed another pass for a first down on the five-yard line. With 54 seconds left, Ike Spencer gained 1 1/2 yards in the middle. Van Galder slowly surveyed the lines as the clock ticked away. He easily was the calmest guy in the frenzied stadium crowd.

Van Galder called the quarterback option to the right. He had tried to run or pass off this same thing four downs when Utah couldn't score in the first quarter from the two.

This was the play because if he didn't get the score the clock would run out in the pile up of players and Utah had no time outs left.

What would Frank Merriwell have done in the same situation?

Van Galder did it, too.

The wiry quarterback spotted a bit of AstroTurf among the clutching Wildcats and he made the greatest dive of his life, into pay dirt, to score with 10 seconds remaining on the clock. Jensen, also something of a Merriwell guy himself, then sliced the uprights with his biggest clutch kick of his life and the 28-27 victory.

That was the ball game which kept alive Utah's championship hopes and a shot at the Fiesta Bowl Dec. 23.

Utah now has a 4-1 WAC record to Arizona's 3-1 mark. BYU and Colorado State stand between the Utes and no worse than a co-championship, with the Utes getting the bowl bid on the basis of beating Arizona.

Oh yes, the fireworks weren't ended in the final 10 seconds.

Demory launched the bomb which could have turned the tables again, but Mike Stevens intercepted and paraded joyfully goalward. On the five, he attempted to lateral to John Frech, who went in to "score" but the lateral was ruled illegal.

So who cared?

Wildcats Dominated

Arizona made monkeys out of Utah for most of three quarters.

Arizona drove 80 yards for a first quarter score with Bob McCall going the final 21 yards to score.

Gene Belczyk attempted to get Utah back in the game when he raced 77 yards to the Arizona three. Four plays later, Utah gave up the ball on the Wildcat one, and that set the tempo for three quarters.

Field Goal Good

Gorham boosted the lead 10-0 and 13-0 in the second period on field goals of 30 and 41 yards as Van Galder was intercepted three times in the second quarter.

The fourth interception, in the first series of the third quarter, set up a touchdown with Marty Shuford breaking tackles to carom the final 27 yards for a 20-0 lead.

Arizona drove 72 yards to score its final touchdown, with Shuford driving over from two yards. That made the score 27-0 with 15:45 left between Utah victory and just another heart-breaking loss.

But Saturday was not a day for heartbreaks, except for Arizona players, coaches and partisans.

Then Utah started getting the pieces to fall in the right slots, and the defense, which had been inconsistent, and the offense, which was ineffective, started to click.

It was the wildest finish in any game this year and probably one of the biggest turn-abouts in Rocky Mountain grid history.

Frank Merriwell was an ersatz hero, the figment of a writer's mind.

The Utah Utes are the real McCoy, but I'm not sure I believe the final heroics yet.


Anonymous said...

This was the first/last Utah game I ever attended. Our elemenary school Valley View Elementary (Bountiful)performed the half-time show. I was only 10 years old, but remember this day vividly. And now 37 years later, I am a big college football fan and love the Utes even though I attended BYU.

Anonymous said...

I was there, recently return from a mission to France and Belgium. I remember my brother and others leaving the game before the fourth quarter---I'm not sure why I stayed. It's funny how time changes memories. I remember Utah being down 27-0 after three quarters, but thought that Utah had negative offensive yards and no first downs. Obviously, that was not the case. But I vividly remember the touchdown bombs and the interception return. Incredible game!