Revenge rode on the back of justice.

After two years of having gut-wrenching losses to BYU forced down its throat with improbable miracle plays, Utah spit out the bitter taste in high fashion Saturday with a first-class thumping of the rival Cougars 48-24 in Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The win vaults the Utes to a BCS bowl yet to be determined, branding the Ute program as the first non-automatic qualifier to make it to the big-money dance for a second time.

For Ute coach Kyle Whittingham, on the spot since Urban Meyer defected to Florida, revenge struck two chords. He got one back at the Cougars and is now 2-2 against Bronco Mendenhall, and he equaled the Meyer watermark of going 12-0 and getting to the BCS.

Whittingham, who took his time with his troops before

meeting the press, couldn't help it.

"This has been a long, long quest ... ahem ... or maybe that's the wrong word ... long journey," he said. "This started after the loss at UNLV last year. This team has been tough as nails."

Not 16-penny nails.

Call it railroad spikes.

Utah's BCS stop in January won't bring in as much of the gold as in 2004 because this time the estimated $9.5 million must be shared between five non-qualifying conferences. In the end, Utah's MWC brothers will inherit a check between $300,000 and $400,000, and Utah Athletics Director Chris Hill will inject the Ute athletic budget with just over $3.5 million.

But that's the money.

You couldn't buy the kind of satisfaction Utah got out of seeing to it that BYU, now 1-20 against ranked teams of late, imploded with six turnovers.

Utah senior quarterback Brian Johnson, who has already graduated, took it as a personal challenge — with the league's two top quarterbacks on the field — to prove who was the best.

On this day, Johnson succeeded with flying colors.

He told reporters he got a little ticked at hearing how explosive BYU's offense was all season.

Using a simple playground act of pitch and see 'em run offense, Johnson completed 30-of-36 passes for 303 yards and four touchdowns. He wasn't close to throwing an interception or fumbling the ball.

"Just put the ball in the hands of our playmakers," said Johnson, who said BYU's defense didn't do anything he hadn't studied for. "I knew what they were doing before they did it at times."

And in this corner ...

BYU's Max Hall, who had just eight interceptions all season, let his competitive edge get the best of him. He believes he can make every play — even those in total checkmate. Refusing to throw the ball away even once, Utah defenders responded with five picks, one of which should have been a pick-six to defensive lineman Paul Kruger.

"I just read his eyes," said Kruger.

It got so bad for Hall, one wonders if anyone in a red jersey didn't get their hands on one of his passes. Kruger jumped on a Hall fumble in the third quarter, killing a BYU drive after BYU's defense had made three stops and it was a three-point game.

Utah scored four plays later to lead 34-24 seconds into the fourth period.

That play, a BYU decision to have Hall pass on second-and-3 at his own 39, was the most decisive play of the game.

Johnson called it a "huge" momentum changer.

In the aftermath, BYU will have to examine why it had Hall attack the teeth of Utah's defensive strength — the secondary — when the Cougars averaged 7.1 yards rushing per attempt, 30 carries for 216 yards in the game.

Said Whittingham, "If there's any question of who the all-conference quarterback is now, I don't know if there is one."

Indeed, Johnson's poise, leadership and drive all season might just epitomize the Utes' undefeated run and undisputed MWC championship.

Johnson and Whittingham said the 12th win is just a step to get to another game — something that should be for all the marbles in a world that's far.

But that's not the game college football plays.

The Utes might climb in the polls, and some may argue they deserve a shot at a national championship BCS game.

But the system will likely bite them.

And that's a shame.

"We beat three ranked teams," Johnson declared.

When you're undefeated, you should get to play for it all.

Bring on a playoff and let it rip.

But instead, as Johnson told reporters, "that's all out of our control."

It is in the hands of some nerds who put together some algorithms to rank college football teams. Then it's added to some human pollsters, some of whom really study and know their stuff and others who sometimes just send it in with a hangover and some regional bias.

After all these nifty polls and rankings shake out on Dec. 6, some dozen BCS bowl guys will talk to TV folks and they'll come up with a national championship matchup. Nonautomatic qualifiers need not apply. They've even messed with their own when they've been ranked in the top three. For TV.

Stupid.

"We've done what we can do," said Whittingham. "All we can do is see what happens. I feel grateful and blessed to be where we are."

And where exactly is that?

Today, it is undefeated, daring somebody to say they don't belong at the top.


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com