The latest rendition of the Holy War football rivalry featuring BYU and Utah even gave Atheists hope that there is a God, somewhere.
He just wasn’t wearing BYU blue last night.
In the craziest game of perhaps them all, the Utah Utes hung on to defeat No. 25 BYU in front of the sixth largest crowd ever at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.
How they got to 24-21, however, is the kind of story you will tell your grandkids — though this 8:15 p.m. start had everyone up well past their bedtimes. This rivalry game had it all: drama, penalties — 22 to be exact — and the nuttiest finish since “The Game.”
“I can’t describe that ending. That’s something I’ll remember when I’m 85 and with Alzheimer’s. That was the craziest finish I’ve ever been a part of and probably one of the craziest I’ve ever seen. I’m happy and proud of this team,’ said Utah quarterback Jon Hays, who got the start over freshman phenom Travis Wilson.
The 2012 Holy War started well. Hays got the nod, replacing now-retired Jordan Wynn and silencing doubters for now.
He led the Utes on a drive that began at their own 22 — but the lack of a run game with John White sitting on the sidelines nursing a bum ankle did them in and they punted.
The Cougars were pinned deep inside their own 5-yard-line after a booming Ute punt. BYU’s first run of the night appeared to have backfired on the Cougars — but Utah defensive end Joe Kruger, mastermind of the late-game penalty and ejection last week at Utah State was called for a 15-yard personal foul, negating a great defensive stop.
That gave BYU life, but two fumbles and a costly false start inside their own 30 forced the Cougars to punt.
The only problem was that BYU outkicked their coverage. Ute return man Charles Henderson zig zagged through Cougar defenders like they were standing still — all the way to the BYU 17.
The Utes tried to get the running game going, again to no avail. However, on second down, Hays rolled out on play-action and tossed the ball into the left corner of the end zone, finding tight end Westlee Tonga, who made a sensational one-handed catch for the first points of the game. The PAT from Coleman Petersen made it 7-0 Utes with 9:12 to play in the first quarter.
BYU got the ball back and was again helped by a Utah personal foul — this time against Ute defensive tackle Star Lotuleilei — but the drive stalled and the Cougars punted.
The Utes desperately tried to get the running game going again, mixing up the run and pass plays but the No. 10 ranked Cougars defense simply would not allow inserted starter Jarrell Oliver or backup Lucky Radley any breathing room.
Even with Hays having luck in the throw game — resulting in four Utah first downs on this drive — the absence of White forced the Utes to kick a 37-yard field goal, which was blocked.
So ended a humdrum first quarter, causing most fans to look at their watch as they wondered when the game would draw at least some sort of movement on the Richter scale.
BYU got the ball back to start the second quarter determined to run the football. The No. 15 Utes defense got gashed a bit, coughing up 18 yards on this drive — but came up empty on an almost four-minute drive when Justin Sorensen missed a 47-yard field goal.
But the Utes — just like the Cougars — sputtered when it came time to take advantage of BYU mistakes in the first half. A false start penalty led to a three-and-out, and another punt.
Even after a great return from Cougar returner/receiver JD Falslev that gave BYU life at its own 47, senior quarterback Riley Nelson showed his nerves a bit, taking two sacks before jumping on his own fumble.
Fans probably wanted their money back at this point, as the Cougars were again forced to punt the ball to Utah. BYU punter Riley Stephenson rocketed the ball, however, landing at the Ute 1.
With just over eight minutes to play in the half, BYU finally got the break it needed, pinning the Utes deep in their own territory. A Utah three-and-out and punt — a shank that gave the Cougars the ball at the Utah 33 — was the non-alcoholic tonic for the heretofore woeful Cougars offense.
Three runs later, Nelson found Cody Hoffman in the end zone, and with the PAT the Cougars and Utes were knotted up 7-7.
On the Utes next drive, Hays dinked and dunked his way down the field — but as was custom for the first half, Utah punted the ball back to BYU.
Deep inside their own 10, the Cougars went backwards instead of going forward, as a sea of red shirts and crowd noise in the enclosed north end zone made it difficult for Nelson to call plays — resulting in two more false starts.
The Utes had a chance to take the lead going into halftime but it wasn’t to be. BYU linebacker Spencer Hadley rocked Hays on a corner blitz — and the Utes ended the first half doing the same thing the Cougars did in the previous drive.
After each team punted to begin the second half, things started to unravel for BYU. Utah cornerback Ryan Lacy jumped a passing route, intercepting the ball and returning it into BYU territory.
The Utes even had a little luck running the ball, netting their first rushing first down of the night. After yet another personal foul penalty — this time on BYU — the Utes had a chance to make a statement. But the Cougar defense would not allow it, instead sacking Hays on the next play.
The Utes did not regain their composure on this drive, but there was a bright spot: Petersen connected on a field goal attempt from 48 yards out, a career long for the Brighton High product and the Utes went up 10-7.
Midway through the third quarter BYU needed to answer, and for almost the remainder of the third it looked like the Cougars would.
Great playcalling combined with just enough of the run game propelled the Cougars down the field on a night that saw BYU go over 150 yards rushing.
After BYU recovered its own fumble several plays later you even saw the re-emergence of Kaneakua Friel, the Cougars go-to tight end, for the first time all night on a 10-yard pass.
Things were moving right along for BYU. And then, another false start was followed by disaster.
On the ensuing snap from center Blair Tushaus, Nelson was not ready to receive the ball, resulting in a fumble that bounced backwards along the turf until Utah cornerback Moe Lee scooped it up and ran 47 yards to paydirt for a 17-7 Utah lead.
More crowd noise — combined with Utah defenders yelling signals that confused BYU offensive lineman all night — contributed to two more Cougar false starts on the next drive.
Two incomplete passes later, and BYU was forced yet again to punt deep inside their own territory.
The Utes had clearly won the battle of field position all evening — and now it was resulting in costly Cougar errors — though Stephenson continued to do his best on a very difficult night.
The Utes got the ball back, and one play later, Hays went for it all. Having some success with the running game in the third quarter — the Utes’ most productive 15 minutes all game — Ute offensive coordinator Brian Johnson called a play-action pass.
Hays wheeled back and hurled a bullet of a throw into a seam, which receiver Dres Anderson caught from 39 yards out for his second touchdown against BYU in as many years.
With Utah now up 24-7 going into the fourth quarter, BYU had to come alive under the direction of Riley Nelson — or else it would be a Utah blowout.
Under center the Cougars went with a hurry-up offense — another stroke of good play calling by BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman — and Nelson began moving BYU down the field for the first time since early in the game.
He relied on medium-range passes to his big target Friel and a Cougar drive that started at its own 25 — aided by a Utah personal foul by Moe Lee, who hit a Cougar player out of bounds — led to a Jamaal Williams 7-yard-run to cut the Utah lead to 24-14 after a PAT.
The Utes then tried to do what worked for them last year in Provo, but running the ball on this night was not going to happen.
And after another terrible Utah punt, BYU was finally winning the battle of field position, in good shape at its own 34 with 11:35 to play.
Instead of throwing the football as the Cougars had done to perfection on their last scoring drive, they ran. And ran. But the clock ran also, and BYU — which had two first downs and the ball in Ute territory — had a chance to make this a game.
But Nelson self-destructed. Whether he called his own number — which is what seniors are wont to do in his situation — or Doman made the decision to run the football on all but one down during this critical drive is a moot point now.
But it was clear to anyone who watched the game with the ball on the Utah 35-yard-line — and an opportunity to cut the lead to single digits — that the Cougars did not make a wise choice by electing to draw up five running plays in a six-play drive.
And so they punted, electing not to have Sorensen — just returning from injury — or Stephenson, whose range is about 35 yards — try a 52-yard field goal.
That coaching decision would come back to haunt BYU later in the game but the Cougars were not going to throw in the towel with eight minutes to play, that’s for sure.
Stephenson’s punt landed at the Utah 11. The Utes came out intending to salt the game away by running the football, a tactic that hadn’t worked at all in this Holy War. And true to form the Utes would punt the football back to BYU.
But it wasn’t Sellwood’s best night. He bobbled the snap and watched in horror as the ball bumbled and stumbled along the grass, giving the Cougars some redemption as Kyle Van Noy devoured the football — and the clock neared midnight.
So brought on the question of the hour: Would BYU continue playing if the clock were to strike midnight? The school does not play on Sundays. As ESPN commentators and you at home pondered this very thought, the Cougars were back in business at the Utah 14. Three runs later BYU was back in the end zone for the second time in the final stanza and down just 24-21.
Where is Ron McBride with his voodoo doll and superstition when you need him? In the old days, Utah and BYU played many games to the final whistle, and this Holy War was proving to be no exception.
It was as penalty-filled, mistake-prone and highlight-laden as any other Holy War, with one catch: both teams refused to quit. It was as if nobody was going home a winner.
Whether there was divine intervention or just plain stupidity on the part of both Utah and BYU was up for discussion.
The Utes had the ball with three minutes and change and went right to the air, the opposite of what they did on their last drive. For the record, BYU allowed just 49 rushing yards on the night — compared to 198 in the air.
Brandon Ogletree, Spencer Hadley and Kyle Van Noy were as good as advertised for the Cougars, combining for 30 tackles and three sacks.
Not one trick play worked for the Utes all night; not even the freshman wizardry of quarterback Travis Wilson, who found himself bottled up, harassed and tossed to the ground like a rag doll time and time again in Utes’ Wildcat packages.
Yet for some strange reason, the Utes ran the football, punctuating this strange night that was about to get even more bizarre. Utah was on the verge of closing the door, the Utes had the ball at the BYU 40, and Hays backpedaled and handed the ball not to John White, but to Lucky Radley, a smaller version.
Draw play. In many games this play would seal the deal for the bigger, faster, stronger Utes — but not today, and not against this BYU defense.
Instead of trying a 55-yard field goal from the BYU 38, however, the Utes elected to punt, downing the ball at the Cougar 8.
With 1:11 showing on the game clock Nelson went to work. Back in the hurry-up offense for obvious reasons he dinked and dunked, and downed the ball as the clock ticked down — and the Cougars loped down the field. Two incomplete passes found BYU in a do-or-die situation at its own 19-yard-line.
It was 4th and 12 from the BYU 19. Nelson reeled back and hurled the ball with all his might toward his left corner of the sideline, about 40 yards down field. Receiver Cody Hoffman — who had a monster game with 120 yards and one TD — leapt above a Ute defender for the ball, snagging it inbounds and giving the Cougars a life line.
“I was really impressed that we converted the fourth down play. That was an amazing play that gave us a chance to extend the game,” said BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Nelson then hurried his team down the field to spike the ball with just seconds to spare. He tried another pass, but it fell incomplete to JD Falslev with no time remaining on the game clock.
“Where do I begin? We should be 4-1 because we won this game three times. I couldn’t be more proud of our team tonight. We were tough, resilient, and bounced back from a tough loss last week and played with grit and determination,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham.
Or so Utah fans and coaches thought the game was over, storming onto the field in a sea of red. However, upon further review Nelson’s pass to Falslev fell incomplete with one second remaining.
The officials corralled the rabid Ute fans back onto the sidelines as best they could, giving the Cougars one more chance: a 51-yard field goal attempt from the Utah 34.
With two timeouts the Utes could have iced BYU kicker Justin Sorensen. Instead, they let him kick the ball.
It was blocked. Sure NFL lottery draft pick Star Lotuleilei reached skyward and pointed his giant paw toward the football, deflecting it and giving the Utes the victory.
And so onto the field poured the Ute fans for a second time from a spot far closer than officials might have liked.
The great author Henry Miller once said, “Why are we so full of restraint? Why do we not give in all directions? Is it fear of losing ourselves? Until we do lose ourselves there is no hope of finding ourselves.”
According to game officials, the Utah fans lost themselves a little too early, and were slapped with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, giving the Cougars a chip shot field goal from 36 yards out.
But the Utes had two things going for them, and one certainly wasn’t the overzealous crowd causing a 15-yard penalty.
One was Sorensen just returning from an injury and the other was that BYU hadn’t hit a field goal all night.
From the right hash mark, the Cougars lined up again, and again the Utes wouldn’t ice the kicker, who happened to now be Stephenson — and he was right at the limits of his field goal range from this distance.
It was indeed time to see what BYU had left. An anxious Ute Nation clung to the sidelines hoping to celebrate for the third time and explode into a red storm of happiness as the time clock read 11:58 p.m., two minutes before midnight.
For more on the Holy War football rivalry, stay tuned to quadrust.com