The University of Utah's dream of an undefeated season came to a crashing halt on a sunny New Mexico afternoon Saturday before a sellout at University Stadium.
The Utes saw their 8-0 record and Top 10 national ranking disappear into the thin Albuquerque air as they blew an 18-point lead and lost 23-21 on a field goal by Nathan Vail with 32 seconds left."They deserve to win," said Ute coach Ron McBride. "I take complete responsibilty. We just didn't make the plays when we needed to."
Utah defensive coordinator Fred WHittingham put it more succinctly. "We were terrible offensively, we were terrible on special teams and we were terrible defensivley. In all three phases of the game, we stunk."
"We didn't make the plays, plain and simple," added Mike McCoy. "It was nothing they did. We have no excuses. Championship football teams find a way to win these games."
The veteran Ute squad had several opportunities to win this one, but it was the youthful Lobos who made the big plays when it counted.
The Utes missed a chip-shot field goal with 4:04 left that would have forced the Lobos to make a touchdown at the end. Then Utah couldn't hold on 4th-and-3 deep in Lobo territory and a missed tackle turned into a 56-yard gain that set up the winning field goal.
"All of the little things that happen in a football game are the things we didn't do today," said McBride. "You have to possess the football . . . you have to wrap up when you tackle, you have to snap the ball correctly on a field goal, you have to play the coverage and make sure you tackle."
Despite the disapppointment, the Utes did their best to put a popsitive spin on the loss afterward.
"We'll consider this a wake-up call," said punter Jason Jones.
"We're going to bounce back, no question about it," said McCoy.
"We're still in control of our own destiny," added McBride. "We can still reach our goal to win the WAC."
That's true. The loss didn't really affect the Utes' chances of winning the Western Athletic Conference title and trip to the Holiday Bowl. If Utah wins its last two games, the only team that can tie them is Colorado State and the Utes have the tiebreaker edge with the Rams because of their win two weeks ago.
The second-largest crowd in University Stadium history, 30,743 showed up to see if their hard-luck Lobos could knock off the 8th-in-the-nation Utes for the third straight season.
The Lobos came into the game just 3-6,but five of their six losses had been by a touchdown or less. Many of the fans and media were surprisingly optimistic about knocking off the unbeaten Utes.
It looked pretty bleak for the Lobos for awhile as the Utes ran up nearly 200 yards in the first quarter alone and jumped to a 14-0 lead. First McCoy hit freshman Kevin Dyson with a 56-yard touchdown pass and later in the quarter,Charlie Brown darted 8 yards for a score.
Vail booted a 45 yard field goal early in the second quarter to cut the margin, but the Utes came right back with another 80-yard drive to make it 21-3 as Brown scored from 12 yards out.
Kareem Leary intercepted a pass and went 39 yards for what looked like his 3rd TD interception return of the season. But it was called back because of a pass interference call on Mark Rexford, in what appeared to be a good call.
The Lobos marched right down and scored on a 5-yard run by Eric Young. Then they added a 2 point conversion on a pass from Stoney Case to Zack Wesley on what looked like a bad call (Wesley appeared to be a good two yards out of bounds). Those two points would come back to haunt the Utes at the end.
In the third quarter, the Lobos totally dominated play, holding the ball for more than 11 of the 15 minutes, while Utah got off just eight plays.
"That third quarter was horrendous," said McBride "We had two third-down situations and didn't convert on either one."
One play that really hurt the Utes came early in the third quarter when Leary forced a fumble with a good hit on Gavin Pearlman. The ball bounced toward Harold Lusk, but instead of falling on it, he tried to pick it up and the Lobos recovered at the Ute 28. Vail eventually kicked a 22 yard field goal to make it 21-14.
"Instead of picking it up, I should have fallen on it. It could have made a difference in the ball game," said Lusk.
The Lobos had just three points to show for their third quarter domination, but they scored on the first play of the fourth quarter - a two yard pass from Case to Roy White. Vail had a chance to tie the game, but his PAT kick sailed wide left.
Utah came alive in the final period and drove into Lobo territory on its first three possessions. The first ended with a punt, the second with a fumble by Robert Hamilton and third on the missed 29-yard field goal by Dan Pulsipher.
On that kick the Utes got a bad snap from center that McBride later criticized. However, the holder Jones said he was still able to get a decent hold on the attempted field goal that missed wide to the left.
"It came dribbling out, but I kind of played shortstop and got it up," said Jones "it was a good hold and a good hit, but when that happens the timing is all off."
Still, all the Ute defense, which has ranked in the national top 10 all season, had to do was stop the Lobos. After holding the Lobos to 7 yards on three plays, the Utes just needed one more stop.
Case found Pearlman in the left flap past the first down marker, but when Keith Harrison came up to tackle, he missed and Pearlman had open field down the left sideline for a 56-yard gain to the Ute 17.
From there, the Lobos picked up one first down, then set themselves up in the middle of the field for the winning field goal and this time Vail didn't miss.
Utah had 32 seconds left but could only get as far as the Ute 49. Pulsifer attempted a 68-yard field goal which would have been an NCAA record and probably a world record as well, but it was woefully short.
Afterward, McBride said it was "probably a stupid call," but the alternative was a Hail Mary pass that needed a lot of luck, something the Utes didn't have much of on this day.
The goal of the Ute defense was to hold Case in check and they did a pretty good job as the nation's No. 2 man in total offense was well under his season average with 240 yards passing and minus one yard rushing.
What hurt Utah was the running of Winslow Oliver, who had missed the Lobos' first four games with an injury. He finished with 91 yards rushing for the day.
Utah's McCoy had good numbers, 24 of 40 completions for 314 yards, while Brown rushed for 103 yards and Curtis Marsh had 8 catches for 85 yards.
Next up for Utah is Air Force Saturday at Colorado Springs, followed by BYU at Rice Stadium November 19th.