PROVO — Take your Michigan-Ohio States, your USC-Notre Dames, your Oklahoma-Texases and put them in your pocket. Keep your USC-UCLAs and toss in your Florida-Florida States just for good measure.

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Doesn't matter, Ute receiver Travis LaTendresse was saying. He knows all about rivalries, having grown up attending the Cal-Stanford game.

Rivalries are big deals, every one.

But Utah-BYU?

"I think it's the best in the nation," he said, after scoring the winning touchdown in Utah's 41-34 overtime win Saturday. "I grew up around Cal-Stanford. I slept out to get tickets; I'd go to the games. It's a special thing. But it doesn't compare to anything here. This is the Super Bowl of Utah."

Did anyone notify John Madden?

On second thought, maybe they ought to keep this the Beehive State's own little slightly unhealthy secret. Besides, it's usually more interesting than the Super Bowl. There were the years the score was stuck at 34-31; the years Brandon Doman and Luke Staley saved BYU down the stretch; the time Utah's Ryan Kaneshiro shanked a kick and lost the game.

Now this: Ute quarterback Brett Ratliff, in his first Division I start, leads the Utes to victory in the first overtime in series history.

Like a Bob Dylan song or a J.D. Salinger book, it's bound to become an instant classic.

"This never gets old," said Utah tight end Chad Jacobsen.

Even in a year in which one team's starting quarterback and star receiver were out with injuries, it was an unmitigated cliff-hanger. Now all that's left is the waiting. But odds look good BYU will still be invited to a bowl. Odds of Utah playing again in 2005? Same, thanks to Saturday's win.

"I think we have a shot," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "As I was telling them, I think we might be going somewhere."

The late afternoon thriller marked a dramatic farewell to the regular season. Speaking of departures, Las Vegas Bowl official Tina Kunzer-Murphy was in attendance, needing only a BYU win to issue the invitation. But by the time LaTendresse had landed in the end zone, Kunzer-Murphy was on the way to Vegas — plans still in limbo. A BYU-visits-Vegas scenario may well happen. By winning, the Utes crowded back into the bowl picture, too, the most likely destination being the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco.

"We're hoping," said cornerback Eric Weddle.

Bowl games or not, there were other things at stake Saturday.

For instance, bragging rights, quality of life, ability to sleep nights, etc. You don't lose this game and not revisit it over and over. Which accounted for Whittingham saying this week produced the most emotion swings he'd experienced since last year when he decided to coach Utah rather than BYU.

"This was the sweetest victory I've ever been a part of," he said, "and I could not be prouder of a bunch of guys than those in the locker room."

If proof of the game's importance is needed, consider this: 2005 was an "off" year. Although both teams appear bowl-bound, each went 6-5 in the regular season. They didn't exactly terrorize the countryside.

Neither team won a championship. In his weekly press conference on Monday, Whittingham labeled the season "mediocre" for both schools.

That, of course, had no effect on how they felt about Saturday.

You'd think they were playing to save the planet. The Utes jumped out to a 24-3 lead at the half, seemingly in control. But there was no reason to warm the car up yet. BYU roared back to tie, thanks largely to three third-quarter touchdowns.

On the second play of overtime, though, Ratliff found LaTendresse on a 25-yard scoring pass. Utah held BYU from scoring to end the game.

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"It's hard to read how big this game is until you play in it," said Ratliff, a junior college transfer whose teammates got him up to speed on its importance.

Nobody will need to explain it to him next year.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com