SALT LAKE CITY — Few — if any — rivalries in college football have produced more memorable games over the past two decades than the BYU-Utah rivalry.
Let’s see, there were the two 34-31 games, the Kaneshiro doink, LaVell’s last miracle, the late-game Staley TD runs, Ronnie Mac’s final game victory, the 3-0 snow bowl, an unlikely Utah overtime win in Provo, Beck-to-Harline, Hall-to-George (and "I hate Utah"), the Burton block, and last year's dual do-overs before the Stephenson doink.
“Almost every year it seems it comes down to the last play or last series of plays,’’ said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.”It’s uncanny how many games in the last 20 years have gone right down to the wire. You’d be hard-pressed to find any rivalry that has had the amount of exciting finishes this one has had.’’
Up until the past two decades, the Utah-BYU game was nothing special. If fact, you could hardly call it a rivalry for 70 years or so.
It was a given that Utah was the superior team for most of four decades as the Utes won year after year. In the first 16 official years of the series starting in the 1920s, the Utes won 15 times (the other was a 0-0 tie) and outscored the Cougars by an astounding 465-39 total.
The dominance continued until the mid-1960s, as the Cougars won a grand total of two games in the series while the Utes won contests by margins such as 35-6, 38-0, 34-6 and 41-6.
The schools were pretty even for six or seven years, before the worm turned in the early 1970s when LaVell Edwards took over at BYU. The Cougars immediately started beating up the Utes like the Utes had done to them for decades. Scores of 38-8, 51-20, 27-0, 55-7 and 56-6 were among the beatings the Cougars laid on the Utes.
But everything changed on a cold, sunny afternoon in Provo 20 years ago with one amazing kick.
The rivalry has never been the same since.
There was little reason to believe that this particular BYU-Utah game was going to be anything special.
Utah was 0-10 in Provo during the LaVell Edwards Era and hadn’t won there since 1971. One local columnist wrote before the game, “Utah’s next win in Provo isn’t due until some time in the next century.’’
The Utes came into the game 6-5 — with bad losses to Arizona State and Wyoming on the road and to Idaho and New Mexico at home. The week before, the Utes had lost to Hawaii in Honolulu. The Utes had a beat-up secondary that was patched up with guys playing out of position and they were going against the No. 9-ranked offense in the country behind quarterback John Walsh.
BYU was 5-4-1 with a porous defense that had given up an average of 52 points in its previous five games. Despite the dreadful defense, the Cougars still had a chance at the WAC title, which they got a piece of with a win over UTEP the following week.
However, the Utes, despite being beaten by scores of 70-31 and 48-17 in their most recent appearances in Provo, were a confident bunch as they arrived at Cougar Stadium.
“When the players got off the bus that day, they didn’t walk off; they ran up to the locker room,’’ recalls Utah coach Ron McBride. “Everybody was anxious that day to get to that stadium and play that game.’’
BYU coach LaVell Edwards was hoping his team could clinch a piece of the WAC title that day, but wasn’t looking past the Utes.
“I always worried about it because we had some close games and the fact that it was Utah,’’ he said. “And a lot of those years the game determined bowl games or championships.’’
The Utes came in with their best offense in years behind quarterback Mike McCoy, the future head coach of the San Diego Chargers, and future NFL standout Jamal Anderson, who hadn't been utilized much until late in the season, but ran for 146 yards on this day.
A 47-yard pass from McCoy to Pierre Jones set up Utah’s first score, a short pass from McCoy to Bryan Rowley. After a BYU field goal by Joe Herrick, Utah answered with an 80-yard drive and a 9-yard TD pass from McCoy to Anderson to make it 14-3.
BYU came back with a touchdown pass from Walsh to Bryce Doman before Chris Yergensen booted a 41-yard field goal to make it 17-10 at the half.
In the third quarter, the Cougars turned to their ground game — specifically to Kalin Hall — and a 1-yard run by Walsh tied the score at 17-17.
It stayed that way until early in the fourth quarter when McCoy found Curtis Marsh streaking down the field for an 84-yard touchdown. However Yergensen pulled the PAT kick left, leaving the score 23-17. A few minutes later, the Cougars took the lead on a 4-yard run by Hall and a Herrick extra point.
The Utes went on a long drive and with 4:39 left, and Anderson scored on a 4-yard run and caught a two-point conversion pass from McCoy to make it 31-24. But BYU took little time in tying the score with 3:16 left on a short run by Walsh.
McCoy had methodically moved the Utes from their own 20 to the BYU 37 after the Cougar TD. But after three incompletions, it was fourth-and-10 with 30 seconds left. The Utes had a big decision to make: throw another pass or try a long field goal (this was three years before college football had overtime for ties, so punting was not an option). If either failed, BYU would get the ball back with decent field position and a chance to win it on its own.
McBride, who always had issues with placekickers, opted for the kick, even though Yergensen had missed that PAT as well as field goals from the 35 and 37 earlier in the game.
Was McBride worried?
“Absolutely — he had missed some easy ones before,’’ he said. “But it was his time.’’
Yergensen, who now lives near Folsom, Calif., where he works as a junior high history teacher, said he actually felt more confident with longer kicks. Also, the field was less muddy out near midfield than in the red zone where he had missed his PAT.
“I was always known for being a long kicker, so the distance wasn’t a factor,’’ Yergensen said. “I wanted to kick the kick. That wasn’t a fear factor for me. Long kicks were what I always wanted to do.’’
Ute receiver Greg Hoffman helped convince McBride to try the field goal, telling his coach that Yergensen had been making 60-yarders before the game.
According to McBride, snapper Derek Whiddon took credit for the successful kick because he snapped the ball early, so Yergensen would have less time to think about it.
The kick was a low liner that started right, but corrected mid-flight and sailed through the uprights, hitting the net behind with plenty of room to spare. As Edwards said, “The only time it got as high as the goalpost was when it got there.’’
Yergensen ran around like a soccer player who had just scored a goal and was mobbed by teammates, but there were still 25 seconds left — plenty of time for BYU to tie or win with two timeouts left. However, after getting near midfield, the Cougars couldn’t get any closer and Mark Swanson intercepted Walsh’s last pass as time ran out.
All these years later, Edwards has one regret — that he didn’t use one of his two remaining timeouts to ice the kicker.
“The only thing I’ve thought about is I should have taken a timeout to see if I could have iced him a little bit,’’ Edwards said. “Thinking back, I wanted to keep that extra timeout, but in retrospect I probably shouldn’t have.’’
Edwards and McBride both agree that the ’93 game was the beginning of the true rivalry between BYU and Utah.
“From the Utah side, that was the most important game that we won,’’ said McBride. “It had been 20 years since we’d won a game there and it proved that Utah could beat your rival and helped catapult the program.’’
“Ron is the one who got that going again, because before that it had been a series of one-sided affairs,’’ Edwards said. “It really changed everything around and it became a real rivalry.’’
And to think it started with an unlikely field goal kick.
“That was a great kick — no question about it,’’ said Edwards.
“That ball’s still going,’’ said McBride. “It was a great kick.’’