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Rivalry runs red

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 11:00 a.m. MDT

Utah's Jason Voss (72) and Paul Soliai celebrate their overtime win against BYU on Saturday in LaVell Edwards stadium. The win made the Utes bowl-eligible at 6-5. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News) Utah's Jason Voss (72) and Paul Soliai celebrate their overtime win against BYU on Saturday in LaVell Edwards stadium. The win made the Utes bowl-eligible at 6-5. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News)
PROVO — Few, if any, games in the rivalry could match this one.
Utah's 41-34 overtime victory over BYU Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium had a little bit of everything—momentum swings, a "circus" defense and bonus play.
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And that's not all. The underdogs Utes secure bowl eligibility by pulling out a bag of tricks that included an untested quarterback coming of age and defensive back Eric Weddle being inserted at both quarterback and punter at times.
"It's the sweetest victory I've ever been a part of," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "I could not be more proud of a football team."
The Utes (6-5), who were also paced by Quinton Ganther's 131 yards and 13 tackles from Casey Evans, will now await a future that could involve a bowl invitation.
Utah's Danny Southwick comes in and just misses blocking a punt by BYU's Derek McLaughlin on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium.  Utah won the game 41-34. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News) Utah's Danny Southwick comes in and just misses blocking a punt by BYU's Derek McLaughlin on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Utah won the game 41-34. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News)
"We hope so. We think we might have a shot to get one more (game)," Whittingham said. "I've got a feeling that we might be going somewhere."
BYU (6-5), meanwhile, is pretty much assured of going bowling — though the Las Vegas Bowl representative left town without issuing an official invitation.
The Cougars have now lost four straight games to the Utes.
"Give credit to Utah, they played solid. This was a hard-fought game that came down to one play," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. " . . . Two teams fought. Two teams competed. Two team laid it on the line. What else can you want from an instate rivalry?"
How about a surprising wrinkle or two with the Utes sending in a defensive unit called the "circus" featuring speedy defensive backs and linebackers, as well as star lineman Steve Fifita?
And what about the inaugural meeting between first-year head coaches?
In the end, though, is was the conclusion that stole the spotlight.
The game-winning score came on the second play of overtime when Utah receiver Travis LaTendresse hauled in a 25-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Brett Ratliff, who made his starting debut for the Utes in place of the injured Brian Johnson.
"It was a play we practiced on all week. I have a choice of going inside or outside depending on coverage," LaTendresse said. "Rat just put the ball on the money. That guy came in, stepped up and played the best of his life."
BYU's chance to counter floundered with two short runs and a pair of incomplete passes. The final throw by quarterback John Beck fluttered to the ground with receiver Michael Reed making an unsuccessful dive to catch it in the end zone.
"To feel confident and have the momentum shift in your favor and not win is a huge sway of emotions," Beck said after completing 27-of-47 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns. "I believed all the way we were going to win because I believe in our guys."
Trailing by 21 points in the second half, BYU mounted a rally that eventually tied the score by the end of regulation. The Cougars clawed back into contention with a pair of touchdown runs by Curtis Brown. His first trip across the goal line came from five yards out after bouncing off a couple of Ute defenders. The second was a 64-yard run just over one minute later.
With its lead cut to 24-17, Utah fired back with an improbable drive downfield. The Utes fended off five penalties before Ratliff teamed with Brian Hernandez on a 45-yard touchdown pass.
The score, along with a 44-yard field goal by Beardall early in the final quarter, proved critical.
BYU gnawed at the deficit—producing a 13-yard TD pass from Beck to Todd Watkins before Beardall's kick and two more scores after it. A 28-yard scoring strike from Beck to Matt Allen preceded a game-tying 27-yard field goal by McLaughlin down the stretch.
"We did not execute with precision or composure in the first half," Mendenhall said. "The second half was a different rhythm and it showed."
The contrast, thereof, added drama to a game filled with intriguing story lines.
Ratliff made an immediate impact in his first start for the Utes. The junior college transfer's first two drives ended with touchdown passes. He wound up throwing four by game's end.
"I can't say enough about that kid. What a gutsy performance," Whittingham said. "He ran the offense like he'd been doing it all year long."
Ratliff completed 17-of-32 passes for 240 yards. He also rushed for 112 yards and a score.
Most importantly, the Utes had no turnovers.
"Winning the turnover margin was huge," said Whittingham.
BYU had the game's lone miscue late in the second quarter when Evans stripped the ball away from running back Fahu Tahi. Evans scooped it up, ran 30 yards and set up a score for the Utes—a four-yard touchdown run by Ratliff.
The play capped all scoring in the first half as Utah held a 24-3 advantage.
The Utes got off to a quick start. They took a 14-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the game after Ratliff connected on scoring strikes of three yards to Brian Hernandez and 15 yards to Chad Jacobsen.
BYU's lone score in the half came on a 31-yard field goal by Jared McLaughlin with 19 seconds to go in the first quarter. Midway through the second, Beardall matched it with a 35-yard kick to set a new school-record with his 12th consecutive make.
The 17-3 score remained intact until the touchdown following the turnover.
"We didn't have much to help prepare for Ratliff and had to make adjustments in the beginning once we found he was a scrambling threat," Mendenhall said.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com

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