The game billed as the biggest in Western Athletic Conference history turned into one of the league's wild and craziest Saturday afternoon. Instead of a battle between two of the country's top defenses, it turned into one of those high-scoring wacky WAC games that wasn't decided until the final seconds.
Before a record Hughes Stadium crowd of 39,107 and a regional television audience, Utah captured a 45-31 victory over Colorado State in the battle of the unbeatens, giving the Utes the inside track on the Holiday Bowl berth that goes to the WAC champion.It wasn't until Utah's Harold Lusk intercepted an Anthoney Hill pass in the end zone and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown with 22 seconds left that the Utes sealed their unlikely victory.
Unlikely because the Rams dominated the offensive statisitcs, moving up and down the field all day against the nation's No. 4 defense. However, the Utes came up with several big plays when it counted.
Before the day was over, the Utes had a safety, a blocked punt, a blocked field goal, a blocked extra point, a fumble recovery and four pass interceptions, including two for touchdowns.
"That was unbelievable, a great win," said Ute coach Ron McBride. "This was a great thing for Utah football and Utah fans. That's as good as it gets in college football."
The contest went back and forth like a ping-pong match, causing many fans and media folks to say it was one of the greatest college games they had ever witnessed.
Utah seemed to have the edge before the Rams stormed back to take their first lead of the game late in the third quarter. Then just when it looked like the Ute offense couldn't do anything, it came up with two plays covering 85 yards to retake the lead.
When Utah recovered a fumble and pushed it in with a trick play to go ahead 31-17, the Rams came right back to tie it in the fourth quarter at 31-31.
Utah then made its only sustained drive of the afternoon, moving 70 yards in 14 plays, scoring on an 8-yard pass from Mike McCoy to Curtis Marsh with 3:46 left.
But everyone knew the Rams wouldn't quit and they moved right down the field to the 10-yard line. Twice the Utes knocked down passes before Lusk stepped in front of the Ram tight end and weaved his way the length of the field for the clinching score.
"We just refused to lose," said Lusk, who had two pass picks on the day. "We truly believed we could win this game and we did."
The Rams, ranked 11th in the nation coming into the game, had to feel frustrated after outgaining the Utes 470 yards to 295 and making 25 first downs to Utah's 14.
"I think we moved the ball as well on them as any team this season," said Ram coach Sonny Lubick. "But our kicking game was terrible. It seemed like everything that could go wrong did go wrong for us."
Utah took a 9-7 first-half lead thanks to a pair of defensive plays. On the Rams' first possession, the Utes pushed the Rams back to the 5-yard line and on third-down, the snap went over Hill's head and out of the end zone for a safety.
On the first play of the second quarter, Utah's Kareem Leary stepped in front of CSU tight end Justin Shull and ran an interception back 39 yards for a touchdown.
"When the quarterback came up to the line, he looked at me and had kind of a gratified look because of where I was. I thought he might be going to the tight end and as soon as he turned his head, I broke," said Leary. It was Leary's second interception for a touchdown this year.
The Rams came back with an 80-yard drive capped by Hill's 1-yard run. They had a chance to go ahead before halftime after blocking a Utah punt, but Utah's Jeff Kaufusi returned the favor by blocking David Napier's 24-yard field goal try.
"I figured it would end up 21-17 or something," said McBride, and most folks agreed with him. No one was ready for 60 second-half points.
On CSU's first possession of the second half, the Ute defense held for one of the few times all day and on the Rams' punt, Utah's Vea Ofa broke through to block it and set up the Ute offense on the 5-yard line.
McCoy made the first rushing touchdown of his career with a 1-yard QB sneak and it was 16-7.
The Rams came back with Hill scrambling 62 yards on a 3rd-and-8 play, setting up a 16-yard pass to Eric Olsen.
Utah's next possession went backwards three yards and CSU marched down again to take its only lead at 17-16 on a 28-yard field goal by Napier.
The Utes were heading backwards again with a 17-yard holding penalty (one of 14 penalties for 117 yards) and an incompletion. But on second and 27 from their own 15, the Utes came up with one of the key plays of the game.
McCoy found Marsh down the left sideline with a 41-yard pass. On the ensuing play, Charlie Brown got loose on a 44-yard touchdown run.
"It seemed just like the one at San Diego. I just read the line and the hole was wide open," said Brown, who put on a burst of speed to outrun all the defenders.
When Ken Buss recovered a fumble on the kickoff for Utah and the Utes moved in for a score to make it 31-17, it looked like the Utes were safe.
The touchdown, a 4-yard pass to Rick Tucker, came off a strange formation that the Utes had used to make a two-point conversion on the previous touchdown. It resembled the old "Duck" formation used under former coach Jim Fassel with four linemen in front of the quarterback, three out near the sideline, one behind them, with two players in the slot in between. McCoy fired and hit Tucker, who had three blockers against one defender in the confused Ram defense.
But CSU marched right down to score with Van Ward scoring on a 5-yard run and then they blocked another punt, setting up a short drive and a 1-yard run by Ward. The Rams had to go for two to tie the game, but were called with a delay of game penalty. Still they managed to score with Hill hitting Shull.
Utah then used up nearly seven minutes of the clock. Even though they had struggled much of the day, McCoy said, "Our offense was definintely confident. Everyone on the offense made a big play on that drive."
The go-ahead score was one the Utes had used several times this year - a fade pattern by Marsh and a lofted pass by McCoy over the defender, who never turned around.
The Rams moved down the field, getting a 16-yard pass on fourth-and-3, and made it all the way to the Utah 10. That's when Lusk came up with his huge interception and return, which tied a Ute record set by Gary Barker 27 years ago.
"I saw what (Hill) was doing, so I sat where I was. That gave me time to get to the ball and then all you saw was number 9 running down the sidelines."
Fittingly, Lusk's interception concluded in the northeast corner of the end zone, directly in front of several thousand Ute fans wearing red and white. A few seconds later after the final gun, the whole Ute team went over to thank their fans for their support amid the celebration.
Next up for the 7-0 Utes is UTEP at Rice Stadium on Saturday, followed by games at New Mexico and Air Force. The Utes conclude their regular season Nov. 19 against BYU in a game that could determine the WAC champion.