August 10, 2009

#6: November 22, 2008 - Utah vs. BYU

HOW IS IT GREAT? From a completely neutral standpoint, this has to be the biggest football game in the history of the Utah-BYU rivalry. Never have both teams been so highly ranked and had so much riding on the outcome. It may not have gone down to the wire, as these games typically do. But it wasn't exactly a blowout, either . . . in fact, the Cougs managed to keep it close for three quarters.

BYU was playing for a share of the MWC title, and an outside shot at a BCS bowl bid. But they were also playing to save face after their highly-publicized "Quest for Perfection" flamed out on the plains of Fort Worth a month earlier. Finally, they were hoping they could wreck Utah's perfect season, which had the effect of magnifying their own shortcomings that year.

Utah, of course, was playing for the outright conference title, their second BCS bowl bid in five seasons, and the undeniable distinction of being the premier non-BCS team in the land.

As wonderful as the last two Holy War victories must have been for Zoob nation, I'm sure they were beside themselves at the prospect of beating the undefeated and #7-ranked Utes to reaffirm their team's divine calling. Surely, such a victory would be a testament to BYU football's sacred nature in a way that "Harline's Still Open" and "Magic Happens" never could.

But sadly for the Zoobs, it had not been foreordained as such. BYU QB Max Hall -- determined not to be sacked six times like he was against TCU -- handled the Ute pass rush by throwing five interceptions. And the Coogar defense -- playing as though winning was only their fifth priority -- got abused by Brian Johnson and the Utah offense.

When the dust had settled, BYU's worst fears had been realized. Utah had done it again. Utah had reached perfection. Utah had busted the BCS. The ensuing on-field celebration -- essentially a replay of four years earlier -- must have reopened a wound that no Las Vegas Bowl bid could ever heal. There could be no solace in looking toward next year. Their belief that Utah is nothing without Urban Meyer, went unredeemed. They learned that when you boldly declare a Quest for Perfection, you lay it all on the line.

That's what BYU did, only to get doubled-up by their arch-rival, 48-24.


FINAL THOUGHTS: Of the nine Utah-BYU games that I consider to be among the greatest Utah games ever, I would rank their greatness as follows:

9. 1953: Utah 33, BYU 32
8. 2005: Utah 41, BYU 34
7. 2003: Utah 3, BYU 0
6. 1978: Utah 23, BYU 22
5. 1993: Utah 34, BYU 31
4. 1994: Utah 34, BYU 31
3. 2004: Utah 52, BYU 21
2. 2008: Utah 48, BYU 24
1. 1988: Utah 57, BYU 28

I rank the 2008 game a close second because that game is overshadowed by everything else that Utah accomplished that season. The 1988 game, on the other hand, stands alone as Utah's single greatest victory and most redeeming accomplishment in a ~16-year span now remembered by many Ute faithful as the Dark Ages (roughly 1974-1989).

I'm sure many will disagree with this ranking, but I know everyone still appreciates the singular greatness of the Rice Bowl. It created a satisfaction that can only arise after utterly dominating our arch-rival, who, over the preceding fifteen-year period, rose to national prominence while our own team wallowed in mediocrity and local indifference.

Other notable Utah-BYU games:

• 1955: Utah 41, BYU 9
• 1957: Utah 27, BYU 0
• 1970: Utah 14, BYU 13
• 1971: Utah 17, BYU 15
• 1995: Utah 34, BYU 17
• 1999: Utah 20, BYU 17

By Dirk Facer
Deseret Morning News
November 23, 2008

They did it again.

For the second time in five seasons, the original Bowl Championship Series busters are poised for another trip to college football's promised land. Saturday's 48-24 win over BYU at Rice-Eccles Stadium sealed the deal for Utah.

The Utes, who defeated Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, entered the game ranked seventh in the BCS standings. They completed the regular season with a 12-0 record and an outright Mountain West Conference championship after defeating the No. 14 Cougars (10-2).

BCS pairings will be announced on Dec. 7.

"I couldn't be more proud of the guys on this team," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We had a great season."

Great was a word Whittingham used frequently after the Utes defeated the Cougars for the first time since 2005.

"We played great in every phase of the game today — offense, defense and special teams — so I'm happy with our effort," he said.

"Brian (Johnson) played a great game. All three coordinators did a great job.

"Now, all we can do is sit back and let the rest of the season unfold. It would take a perfect storm for us to get (into the BCS title game), but there are a couple more weekends of football left and it will be interesting to watch," Whittingham added.

Utah sharpened up its resume against the Cougars.

Johnson led the offense by completing 30-of-36 passes for 303 yards and four touchdowns.

"If he's not an all-conference quarterback," Whittingham said, "I don't know who is."

Johnson, one of 18 seniors playing his final home game for the Utes, acknowledged a BCS-clinching win over BYU was the perfect way to go out.

"Tonight was a tough challenge and we stuck together and played well," Johnson said. "It's always a big challenge for me to play against other great quarterbacks and try to be the best at my position on the field."

Johnson certainly had a better outing the Max Hall. The Cougars' quarterback was 21-of-42 for 205 yards. He was intercepted five times and lost a fumble that Utah recovered.

"I think that without the turnovers it would have been a completely different game," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said after congratulating Utah on its victory. "In a game like this when there is a championship on the line, you have to play cleaner than we did."

The bulk of the Cougars' woes came after they pulled to within 27-24 midway through the fourth quarter.

Utah's defense seized control of the game with four interceptions and a fumble recovery down the stretch.

"Our defense rose to the occasion when it mattered most," Whittingham said.

The decisive turnovers came after an 11-yard touchdown run by quarterback Max Hall gave BYU the game's only third-quarter score.

Safety Robert Johnson got things started on the Cougars' next possession by intercepting Hall on the Utah 22. The next miscue came when defensive end Koa Misi forced Hall to fumble and Paul Kruger recovered it on the BYU 31.

Utah's offense cashed in on the latter. An 8-yard touchdown toss from Johnson to Brent Casteel provided some much-needed breathing room.

The Cougars' next three drives also ended with turnovers.

On the first one, Kruger picked off a pass from Hall and returned it 30 yards to the BYU 4. Matt Asiata then took a direct snap and connected on a 4-yard scoring strike to Chris Joppru.

Less than four minutes later, Hall was intercepted by cornerback Sean Smith. A 38-yard return was accompanied by a 15-yard penalty on the Cougars, giving the Utes possession on the 29-yard line. Johnson capped a nine-play series with a 1-yard TD toss to Colt Sampson.

BYU's final possession ended with safety Joe Dale's second interception of the game.

Seconds later, fans stormed the field for the conference trophy presentation at midfield.

"We competed hard and settled in to take this team to the next step," Johnson said. "We're on the verge of another BCS season and it was a great job by the coaches, seniors and all that are a part of Utah football."

The Utes came out determined to show what they could do.

Johnson completed 16-of-19 passes for 154 yards as the Utes jumped out to a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter.

After guiding a game-opening, 12-play series that ended with a 37-yard field goal by Louie Sakoda, Johnson led Utah on a pair of touchdown drives.

BYU, however, evened things up first. A 70-yard kickoff return by Austin Collie put the Cougars in scoring position on the ensuing possession. They wound up capitalizing on the field position with a 40-yard field goal by Mitch Payne.

With the score knotted at 3-3, Johnson moved the Utes downfield with precision. He was 6-for-6 passing in a drive that concluded with a 16-yard scoring strike to Brent Casteel.

It took less than 11 minutes for Utah to rack up nine first downs on BYU's defense. The Utes added five more on their next possession, which was capped by a 4-yard touchdown run from Matt Asiata with 13:44 left in the half.

Leading by 14 following Sakoda's PAT, Utah faced some ups and downs before the intermission.

Adversity crept in a couple of minutes later. On a third-down play where Hall was sacked out of field-goal range by Misi, Kruger was flagged for being offsides. The Cougars wound up with a fourth- and-1 situation and responded with a 23-yard touchdown run by Harvey Unga to close the gap to 17-10.

Utah went three-and-out on the ensuing series. BYU's offense responded to the defensive success by putting together a sustained drive that covered 75 yards on nine plays. A third-down pass interference call on Utah's Brice McCain gave the Cougars first-and-goal on the 2-yard line. Unga ran into the end zone on the next play.

Payne's extra-point kick followed as BYU pulled even at 17-17 with 6:26 to go in the second quarter.

It didn't stay that way for long. Before the half was complete, Utah scored 10 unanswered points to regain the lead. Both scores came in the final 1:41 — on a 35-yard field goal by Sakoda and a 32-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to David Reed.

The latter followed an interception by Dale and a personal foul on Hall that gave the Utes possession on the Cougar 44. Three plays later, Johnson connected with Reed in the end zone.

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