Jim Fassel was struggling to keep his composure, when people started coming up. He began to speak, but a booster club member crowded into the press tent and bear-hugged him.
After a brief period of back-slapping and long eye contact, he continued. "Last night, one thing kept coming into my mind . . . ," Fassel said. This time Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill cut in. Time for another bear hug. It was as emotional as a reception line. Fassel started to blink, faster now, then continued. "I was thinking about how happy I was to be at Utah and have this kind of a program. Some games you win, and some you lose. But there were no losers out there today."More blinking and hugging was soon to follow. But Fassel forged on. "I knew we could beat BYU, but I didn't know when it was going to come."
And so the long-awaited victory did come, after a decade of waiting. This year there were tears on all fronts, as Utah wiped out BYU 57-28. Tears of dejection on the BYU side and tears of relief on Utah's. And, undoubtedly, tears in Anaheim, where the Freedom Bowl is hoping to sell out a game that involves a BYU team that has lost two of its last three games - and has national powerhouse Miami coming up next.
The victory produced the most points Utah has ever scored against BYU, and the Utes' first win over the Cougars since 1978. "I'm about as spent now as I've ever been in my life. I'm happy and joyful, but drained," sighed Fassel.
It was a predictably chaotic scene after the final gun. Players filed into the locker room, then ran back out onto the field for a curtain call. Ute fans climbed the goal post and spent no fewer than 20 minutes tearing it down.
The celebration picked up steam when Fassel re-entered the locker room. The stereo went on high. Wild cheers went up for Fassel, University President Chase N. Peterson, and Hill. Peterson delivered a few
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words on fighting adversity. Then Fassel asked a television cameraman to turn down the lights, before lauding the team for its determination in winning the last four games of the season. "It is over!" Fassel shouted.
Indeed, it was over. BYU's nine-year winning streak had ended. Fassel's personal three-year losing streak to BYU was over, as well. And, of course, the Utes' season was over with a 6-5 record, one forged out of the ashes of a 2-5 record late in October.
The 1988 annual grudge match was nothing if not curious. It looked like somebody had given out the wrong uniforms. For the first time in a decade, it was BYU hanging heads at the end while the Utes were trying to hold down the score. They called it a wrap at the BYU eight-yard line with the Utes running into the line. Utah had entered the game an 11-point underdog.
Saturday morning dawned with Fassel finding himself struggling to keep calm. "My stomach was in knots. I just wanted to get out and play the game and keep my composure," he said.
Once the game got started, composure was still difficult. On the first series of the game, the Utes drove to the BYU 44, but quarterback Scott Mitchell threw a weak pass right into the chest of BYU safety Scott Peterson.
But shortly after, the Utes gave an inkling of what was to come when they recovered a Matt Bellini fumble at the Ute 26. Eddie Johnson, who had a sensational day at the office, began by taking a short pass and going 29 yards to the BYU 36. Johnson finished the drive by piggybacking a BYU player three yards into the end zone.
Before the Cougars could utter the name Mohammed Elewonibi (a BYU lineman), they found themselves swimming in the deep end. Johnson was denied a sensational 45-yard run on a holding penalty near the end of the first period but came back to score a touchdown on a two-yard sweep. On the next possession, BYU quarterback Sean Covey tried to short-arm a pass under pressure but ended up completing it into the stomach of Ute defensive tackle Sam Tausinga. The surprised Tausinga lumbered 17 yards on the interception for a touchdown.
The Cougars were doing double-takes. They checked the scoreboard. All the lights were working. It read Utah 21, BYU 0.
This was the all-show-and-no-substance Utes? This was the defense ranked 96th out of 104 teams in the country?
It still wasn't over at that point. Covey moved the Cougars to the Utah two, from where Bellini went in to trim Utah's lead to 21-7. But the first of a number of serious mistakes by the Cougars soon began to show. A 67-yard touchdown punt return by Rodney Rice went awry when a penalty brought it back. On Utah's next possession, the Utes scored when Johnson went across from the two. The PAT was blocked, as the Utes held steady with a 20-point lead.
The Cougars had a final chance to gain momentum for the halftime locker room, moving as far as the Utah 14, but Utah's Manny Saiz sacked Covey and Garland Harris recovered the fumble.
"Turnovers were a big factor, and that took us out of two or three scoring opportunities," said BYU Coach LaVell Edwards. "The punt return that was called back came at an inappropriate time."
BYU continued what would turn out to be a long run of turnovers (eight) at the start of the second half, with Covey throwing an interception to Sean Knox. The interception, one of five Ute pickoffs on the day, set up a 44-yard field goal by Tim Wagstaff. "I knew as soon as we picked off the pass in the second half they weren't going to stop us. It was over," said Ute safety Greg Smith.
As the score widened, Cougar players continued to fall. Defensive linemen Tim Clark and Tim Knight both left in the first half with injuries. Later on, star linebacker Bob Davis left with a knee injury. Edwards said they will scope his knee for cartilage damage on Sunday. "The worst possible thing that I feared might happen, is that we have a lot of injuries," said Edwards.
And the second worst possibility was a blowout. They suffered both.
With Freedom Bowl officials watching uneasily, the Utes continued. Detmer executed a 22-yard TD pass to Darren Handley, closing the lead to 30-14, but Utah answered with two more touchdowns. Scott Mitchell, who had a 384-yard passing day, threw on the run to Dennis Smith for one score, but the two-point conversion pass failed. Then LaVon Edwards picked off a BYU pass and the Utes took it in again, Mitchell finding Carl Harry for a 16-yard score. That made it 43-14.
While a number of the BYU fans in attendance began leaving, the Ute crowd sat riveted, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Detmer got the Cougars another touchdown on a pass to Bellini late in the third quarter. Smith and Mitchell hooked up at the start of the fourth period on a touchdown pass, but Bellini answered with an eight-yard scoring run of his own. The final touchdown of the day came with 10:14 left as Johnson danced in from the seven.
Fassel held Mitchell out of all but three plays of the final seven minutes, and settled the Utes into a routine of dive plays in the last three minutes. Utah, which ends its season with a 6-5 record, set four NCAA marks and 26 school records. BYU, 8-3, continues on to play Miami on Dec. 3 before meeting Colorado in the Freedom Bowl Dec. 29 in Anaheim.
Johnson, who rushed for 112 yards and added another 91 in receiving, said the victory was the culmination of his career at Utah. "If I never play a football game again, this will be the best day I've ever had."