SALT LAKE CITY — Rice-Eccles Stadium almost proved to be a home-field disadvantage for the Utah Utes in Saturday's 24-21 victory over BYU.
An unsportsmanlike penalty for celebrating fans rushing the field prematurely provided a wild finish to the latest chapter of the Rivalry Game. It allowed BYU to attempt a game-tying field goal as time expired. Riley Stephenson's 36-yard field goal hit the left upright, however, putting an end to a game that ended right around midnight.
The miss capped a crazy conclusion that gave BYU three opportunities to win or tie the game in the closing moments. A 47-yard pass from Riley Nelson to Cody Hoffman moved the Cougars into scoring position at the Utah 34 with 10 seconds remaining. Nelson then spiked the ball to stop the clock. A pass intended for J.D.Falslev was incomplete.
That’s when things really got nutty.
When a 51-yard field goal attempt by Justin Sorensen was blocked by Utah's Star Lotulelei, the Utes were cited for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when fans stormed the field and interfered with Falslev after he recovered the ball. It gave the Cougars another chance and a closer one at that.
The ensuing opportunity — after the ball was moved to the Utah 19 — ended with the carom off the upright.
“I can’t describe that ending. That’s something I’ll remember when I’m 85 and with Alzheimers,” said Utah quarterback Jon Hays. “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.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham had similar thoughts.
“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,” he said. “We were tough, resilient and bounced back from a tough loss last week and played with grit and determination.”
The final Salt Lake City meeting between the rivals until 2016 will certainly be remembered, even if the play was somewhat sloppy throughout. The teams combined for seven fumbles (five by BYU) and an interception.
Nelson completed 17-of-25 passes for 206 yards. Hays, in his first start this season in place of the retired Jordan Wynn, was 18-of-27 for 196 yards.
Hoffman finished with a game-high eight receptions for 120 yards. Reggie Dunn topped Utah with six catches for 56 yards.
Neither team had a rusher with more than 56 yards.
Defensively, BYU linebacker Brandon Ogletree led all tacklers with 12 stops. Defensive backs Reggie Topps and Tyron Morris-Edwards each had eight for Utah.
The Cougars, though, lost the turnover battle by a 2-0 margin and it proved to be costly.
“Our team didn’t play clean enough football today to win the game,” said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. “I really liked their heart, how they fought back, how they played until the last second and gave us a great chance right until the very last play. But (we made) too many mistakes from the beginning of the game through (the end) to have a clean enough victory and Utah capitalized on them to their credit.”
A pair of BYU miscues led to 10 Utah points and broke a 7-7 tie in the third quarter. The first turnover — an interception of Nelson by cornerback Ryan Lacy — led to a go-ahead 48-yard field goal Coleman Petersen.
The separation continued on the Cougars' next drive when Nelson wasn't prepared for a shotgun snap. Utah defensive back Moe Lee scooped up the ball and ran 47 yards for a touchdown.
Leading 17-7, the Utes added another score before the quarter was complete. One play after forcing BYU to punt, Hays teamed with Dres Anderson on a 39-yard scoring strike. Petersen followed with the PAT to make it 24-7.
The Cougars responded early in the fourth quarter with an eight-play drive that covered 75 yards, culminating with a 7-yard touchdown run by Jamaal Williams. Stephenson added the extra point to close the deficit to 24-14 with 13:43 left to play.
The score was cut to its final margin with 3:39 to go when Nelson and Kaneakua Friel hooked up on a 1-yard touchdown toss.
Utah came out with plenty of surprises, the most notable being the absence of running back John White and a 3-4 defense.
Both led to punts on initial offensive drives. The second one, however, featured a 57-yard return by Utah's Charles Henderson and set up the game's first score — a 17-yard touchdown pass from Hays to tight end Westlee Tonga with 9:12 to go in the opening quarter.
Utah's 7-0 advantage held firm until 4:40 remained in the half. That's when BYU cashed in on prime field position following a 23-yard punt by the Utes. A 10-yard scoring strike from Nelson to Hoffman capped a four-play drive that began on the Utah 33.
Besides a 7-7 tie at halftime, both teams had nine first downs at the break. The Utes held a wide advantage in time of possession (18:48-11:12), but managed only 23 more yards of total offense (142-119) despite running nine more plays in the first half. They converted on 3-of-10 third-down situations, while BYU succeeded on just 1-of-7 opportunities.
By game’s end, however, the Cougars wound up with more yards (312-245), first downs (25-14) and third-down conversions (6-4) than the Utes.
Without White, who dismissed reports about an ankle injury by telling the media on Wednesday that he was "100 percent" and ready to pound the Cougars, Utah had just 30 yards rushing at halftime. Redshirt freshman Jarrell Oliver started in place of White and netted 24 yards on 11 carries.
The Utes wound up finishing with just 49 yards rushing in the game. A decision on whether White would play was not made until 20 minutes before kickoff by the trainers.
The outcome left both teams with 2-1 records. BYU visits Boise State on Thursday, while Utah opens Pac-12 play Saturday at Arizona State.
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