SALT LAKE CITY — It’s a huge deal when these teams get together. There’s a lot of emotion, plenty of talking. The teams will think about the game all the next year.
Oh, were you thinking of Utah-BYU?
Yeah, that’s a nice game, too.
But the really big game?
Unless conference overtime games don’t mean a lot.
With a 51-48 loss to Oregon State behind them, the Utes now turn to BYU, a rival of 117 years. Yes, that game still matters. The teams will be taking a 2-year hiatus after next week.
But that wasn’t much of a thought Saturday night at Rice-Eccles. It took Sean Mannion’s 6-yard scoring pass in overtime to decide the matter. The Utes left looking like they’d lost their biggest game in years.
Rivalries can be interrupted but feelings are the gift that keeps on giving — for new rivalries and old.
Truth is, Utah’s loss to OSU was bigger than the outcome of next week’s game with the Cougars. After their disastrous starts in conference play the last two years (combined 0-8), the Utes simply had to get a quicker start. In some ways they did.
The Utah-BYU game will likely have plenty of emotional punch but less value, kind of like selling your first car vs. selling some stock shares for a big profit.
Though the two games don’t have the same buildup, they eventually might. Beating BYU again would be oh-so-fine for the Utes, food for the soul. But it would put them no closer to the Rose Bowl than beating Weber State.
Defeating Oregon State would have been an investment in the future. If they didn’t know it already, they do now. One win hits you in the gut, the other hits you in the gut but also wallet. Losing to BYU leaves a mark, losing to Oregon State could cost the Utes serious bowl money, as they start checking off the list of games based on conference record. From the Rose Bowl ($17 million) they slip to the Alamo Bowl ($3.175 million), to the Holiday ($2.075 million), to the Sun Bowl ($2 million), on down to the No. 7 bowl, the New Mexico Bowl ($456,000) — which is a money-losing proposition. BYU and Utah could actually meet again in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl ($837,500) on Dec. 27 if the Utes get the Pac-12’s No. 6 spot.
Still, the Utes had something to draw from. It was a five-touchdown night for Utah quarterback Travis Wilson. Too bad for the Utes they were facing Mannion, arguably the Pac-12’s best quarterback.
For a 2-0 team, going into Saturday’s contest, the Utes looked suspiciously like the same Utes as last year’s 5-win team: some defense, no offense. The ground game moved like the continents — three inches a year. Utah totaled only 12 yards offense in the first quarter, quickly falling behind 10-0. In the first half it carried for only six yards. But James Poole rushed for over 100 yards in the second half, changing the complexion of the game.
On the defensive side, the Utes couldn’t do much to stop Oregon State quarterback Mannion. They weren’t alone. He came into the game with nearly 800 passing yards. All the Beavers TDs came via Mannion passes, including the game-winner.
At halftime the Utes had improved to 153 yards, but still trailed 20-10. The effort wasn’t helped by untimely penalties — are there any other kind? — including illegal blocks — two on the same play.
After the awful first half rushing, the Utes got rolling in the third quarter. On two first-possession runs, Poole and Wilson broke loose for runs of 28 and 35, the latter going for a touchdown that cut the Utah deficit to 27-17.
Wilson — who had three interceptions — brought Utah back to lead 38-37 with 4:25 to go. It was his 24-yard keeper that tied the score with 4:25 remaining and a 9-yarder that sent it into OT.
The reality of the situation didn’t take terribly long to sink in for the Utes. They’d been there before. When they entered the Pac-12 in 2011 they were immediately swimming in deep waters. In each of their first two seasons in the league, they started 0-4 in conference play.
Which brought them to Saturday’s conference opener at Rice-Eccles against Oregon State. In a serious way, it was hugely important for the Utes. Start off on the wrong side of the ledger and what do they have?
These are games the Utes should win but still haven’t learned how.
In beating OSU, Utah could have shown its intentions of being not just in the league but respected, too.
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