Even though BYU had just gone up by four points with a little over two minutes left, the Rice Stadium crowd could see the intriguing possibility. Some fans started to chant - "Thirty-four, thirty-one; thirty-four, thirty-one."
That score made so famous by those recent bank commercials was just a touchdown away from reality for the Utes, who were trying to salvage a season that had turned sour the two previous weekends.First freshman Cal Beck, the fastest player on the Ute team, broke loose up the sidelines for a 67-yard kickoff return. Then Mike McCoy found Charlie Brown for a 20-yard touchdown pass with 56 seconds left and Dan Pulsipher added the extra point. It was all over when Bronzell Miller forced a fumble by John Walsh after the Cougars had driven dangerously into Ute territory.
Final score: 34-31, Utah . . . again.
Just like a year ago at Provo, the Utes pulled out a last-minute 34-31 victory over their longtime rivals. And if you thought last year's game was special, this one was even better. The 34,139 fans witnessed a classic, one of the greatest Utah-BYU games ever, regardless of who ended up on top.
Saturday's game not only featured a possible Holiday Bowl berth, it also marked the first time the two rivals had played as ranked, Top 20 teams. The contest showcased six lead changes, including four in the final quarter. It featured two of the finest quaterbacks in college football trading touchdown passes, as McCoy and Walsh each fired up four on the day.
"I'll tell you, it doesn't get any better then this," said Ute coach Ron McBride, who was mobbed by fans and supporters after the game. "I don't think anyone in the state of Utah could want a better game than that.
"What a game by this football team," continued McBride. "That's the way we played when we were winning and we forgot about it for a couple of weeks. Today we found a way to win."
With the victory, the Utes appear headed to the Copper Bowl Dec. 29 in Tucson for the second time in three years, although the Freedom Bowl is a possibility. The win gives Utah a 9-2 record, tying it with the 1964 team for most victories. They are also expected to move up in the rankings, perhaps into the top 15 when the polls are announced Sunday morning.
A Ute victory didn't look likely when BYU's Walsh fired a 27-yard touchdown pass to Mike Johnston with 2:15 left in the game. But on the ensuing kickoff, Utah's Beck took the ball at the one and headed up the middle. He broke free near the 25, but ran into his own teammate Devo Fineanganofo, slowing him briefly. Still he found an opening up the west sideline right in front of the BYU bench. Near midfield, Beck lost his balance and staggered a few more yards to the BYU 32 where he was run out of bounds.
"I didn't even realize how far I had gone until my teammates came up and started jumping on me," said Beck, who also didn't remember bumping into his teammate early in the run.
On the Utes' first play they ran Brown up the middle as they had done on eight of their previous 12 possessions. The following play was another Brown run up the middle for no yards.
On the next play, McCoy was looking to pass downfield. With everyone covered, he looked to his left and found Brown all alone. "I saw they were in extra coverage so I dumped the ball off to Charlie," said McCoy.
Brown caught the ball in the flat at the 22 and turned up the sidelines. He had clear sailing until the 3-yard line when Jack Damuni hit him, but Brown dove across the line just inside the flag.
For Brown, the touchdown was redemption for a couple of costly mistakes earlier. His fumble in the second quarter set up BYU's first touchdown and later he dropped a pass after beating his defender.
"I had to make it up after I let my teammates down," said Brown, who finished with 107 yards rushing.
After that it was up to the Utah defense, which had performed so well earlier in the season before giving up considerable yards in consecutive losses to New Mexico and Air Force.
A third-down pass from Walsh to Hema Heimuli picked up 34 yards down to the Ute 34 with just 17 seconds left. Another few yards would put the Cougars in good field goal range. A tie seemed sensible because it would give them the Holiday Bowl should Colorado State lose later.
"We were still trying to decide whether or not to try the field goal or go for the win,' said LaVell Edwards.
The decision went for naught on the next play when Miller bowled over James Johnson and hit Walsh from behind. Jeff Kaufusi and Luther Ellis pressured Walsh from the other side and when Miller knocked the ball loose, Ellis pounced on it.
"I pushed (Evan) Pilgrim all the way back and Walsh stepped back a little bit. Then Bronzell came in and cleaned up. The ball fell right in my hands," said Ellis.
After the Utes wasted the final 10 seconds, bedlam reigned on the field as fans and players together took down the south goal posts, the same scene the Utes witnessed the previous two weeks at Albuquerque and Colorado Springs.
The Utes had jumped out to a 10-0 lead as Pulsipher hit from 20 yards out and McCoy found Curtis Marsh on a 57-yard TD pass.
The field goal came after Harold Lusk intercepted a pass and returned it to the BYU 30. On their next possession, the Utes took six plays as McCoy found Marsh on a simple slant that Marsh turned into a touchdown by outrunning the BYU defenders and diving to the flag.
The early lead was not a good omen to Ute fans, who had seen their team blow leads of 18 and 17 points in their two previous outings.
Sure enough, BYU came back with 17 straight points in a four-and-a-half-minute stretch in the second quarter. David Lauder booted a 30-yard field goal, Walsh hit Chad Lewis with a 4-yard TD pass and Bryce Doman hauled in a 31-yard pass from Walsh.
The Ute offense didn't make a first down during that stretch, but the Utes regrouped and re-took the lead on a 28-yard Pulsipher field goal and a 15-yard pass from McCoy to Deron Claiborne with just 29 seconds left.
BYU went up 24-20 early in the third quarter on an 8-yard pass from Walsh to Tim Nowatzke. The Utes had a miserable offensive third quarter just as they had the previous two weeks.
A great punt by Jason Jones left the Cougars at the 2-yard line, setting up the Utes' next score when Marsh returned Alan Boardman's low punt 19 yards to the BYU 17. A penalty put the Utes at the 8 and two plays later McCoy hit Claiborne, who made a great grab of a pass thrown behind him for a 5-yard touchdown.
The Cougars weren't through, however, as they dove 80 yards with Walsh hitting Johnston for the score. Their only mistake was scoring too early.
McBride gave credit to all sorts of people including his wife, Vicki, for buoying him up all week and Senator Orrin Hatch and Jazz president Frank Layden for inspirational talks the day before the game. Still, his players deserved most of the credit.
"This was a real gut check," said McBride. "A week ago we were at the bottom of the barrel. But this team found a way to dig down and win."