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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Utah's Tommy Hackenbruck and Morgan Scalley smother Bo Nagahi with congratulations after he picked up a fumble in the third quarter and ran it in for a score Saturday night to make the score 31-14.

Utah cleared a path to the Bowl Championship Series with a 52-21 victory over BYU at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Saturday's victory gave the Utes their first 11-0 season.

"This is a dream come true for the team. I can't say enough about my teammates. They deserve this," said quarterback Alex Smith. "We are gonna get our shot to go to the BCS and play with the big boys."

Though not official until the final BCS standings are released on Dec. 5, the fifth-ranked Utes are most likely headed to the Fiesta or Sugar bowls in January. They'll be the first team from a non-BCS conference to crash the financially lucrative system that was established in 1998.

"I don't want to be overly dramatic but I think it's an historic day," said athletic director Chris Hill. "For a school like ours to earn our way into the biggest of bowls is absolutely fantastic."

A celebration ensued as hundreds of the 45,326 fans in attendance began pouring onto the field in the closing seconds. Many sported sombreros and tossed tortilla chips into the air (Tostitos is the Fiesta Bowl's chief sponsor) before tearing down the goal posts.

"What a great day for Salt Lake City," marveled Urban Meyer. "What a great day."

A trophy presentation at midfield, complete with defensive lineman Sione Pouha leading a group singing of the school song, enhanced the postgame festivities.

"I do believe that Utah is one of the top six teams in the country," Meyer said after the national broadcast on ESPN2. "We proved a point today on the field against a very good opponent."

BYU (5-6) could have become bowl eligible with a victory. The loss dropped the Cougars to 5-6 and gave them their third consecutive losing season, a first for the program in 40 years.

"I want to give Utah a lot of credit. They are an outstanding football team, so give them credit," said BYU coach Gary Crowton. "They represent the MWC very well and they have had a great season. I think they will represent the conference well, whoever they play, and will be very hard to beat."

Utah racked up 26 first downs and 538 yards of total offense in winning the Holy War for the third straight year. Smith completed 16-of-24 passes for 184 yards to lead an effective offense. Quinton Ganther finished with 122 yards rushing, while Paris Warren had a game-high eight receptions.

BYU quarterback John Beck was 17-of-32 passes for 213 yards and a pair if touchdowns. The Cougars wound up with 294 yards and 19 first downs.

"Alex threw two interceptions, which is very un-Alex like, but we played a very good defensive football team," said Meyer. I think with all three phases—offense, defense and kicking—did a great job. It was a complete football game."

If it weren't for one pivotal minute early in the third quarter, Utah's BCS hopes may have vanished into the cool Autumn air.

Exactly 60 seconds separated two scores by the Utes that turned a slim lead into a comfortable advantage. A 40-yard field goal by David Carroll preceded Bo Nagahi's 12-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown that made the score 31-14.

Middle linebacker Tommy Hackenbruck created the latter by jarring the ball away from BYU receiver Antwaun Harris.

Though the Cougars responded quickly—on a 16-yard scoring strike from John Beck to Austin Collie—they would draw no closer the rest of the way. After an exchange of interceptions, Spencer White for BYU and Eric Weddle for Utah, the Utes scored a pair of touchdowns to take a 24-point lead into the final 10:34.

Savoy opened the outburst with a 92-yard touchdown run down the right sideline. It was the second-longest ground score in Utah history, trailing only a Frank Nelson's 93-yarder against BYU in 1947. The Utes' next possession ended with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Savoy.

With just over a minute to go, defensive lineman and former high school running back Steve Fifita added a four-yard TD run to give the Utes their widest margin of victory over BYU since a 57-28 win in 1988.

Utah led 21-14 at halftime despite losing wide receiver Travis LaTendresse to a shoulder separation, Morgan Scalley to a migraine headache (he returned in the second half) and cornerback Gerald Fletcher to a knee injury. Though the Utes never trailed, Smith's first interception in 113 attempts prevented them from pulling away early in the second quarter.

It came on a fourth-and-7 play from the BYU 23 when Utah held a 14-7 lead. Nathan Soelberg picked it off for the Cougars and returned it 60 yards before being brought down by Smith. Two plays later, Curtis Brown rambled six yards for the tying touchdown.

The Utes, however, managed to regain the lead before the intermission thanks to a 12-play, 79-yard drive. The series featured a successful fake punt that Bo Nagahi kept alive with a 23-yard gain. Smith capped the sequence with a 2-yard touchdown run with just 1:19 remaining.

Utah's earlier scores came on short runs by Savoy and Marty Johnson. Between touchdowns, BYU ended a three-year touchdown drought against the Utes when John Beck teamed with Todd Watkins on a five-yard pass.

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com