PROVO For BYU, it was fourth down and 18, but it might as well have been fourth-and-hopeless.
Trailing 10-9 to Utah with a little more than one minute remaining, Cougar quarterback Max Hall, nursing a shoulder sprain, lined up at his own 12-yard line facing the biggest challenge in the biggest game of his young career. He had fumbled on first down, losing 8 yards, and then threw two straight incompletions, including one that was nearly intercepted.
"On fourth-and-18," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall admitted later, "your chances aren't very good."
But Hall was confident.
"This is a magical place to play football," he said. "I knew something magical was going to happen."
And, for the Cougars, something magical did happen.
The sophomore QB rolled to his right and found wide receiver Austin Collie for a 49-yard completion to give BYU new life in Ute territory. Several plays later, Harvey Unga barreled into the end zone from 11 yards out with 38 seconds remaining to lift the Cougars to a 17-10 victory before a crowd of 64,749 at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
With the win, the No. 23 Cougars (9-2, 7-0) clinched their second consecutive outright Mountain West Conference championship.
For the second straight season, BYU needed one final drive, one late comeback, to vanquish Utah. And for the second straight season, the Cougars were able to do it, though this time, BYU's defense had to bat down a long Brian Johnson pass into the end zone to preserve the victory with no time remaining on the clock.
"I'm really proud of our team and the way they fought back," Mendenhall said of his players. "The fourth-and-18 with Max Hall and Austin Collie was unbelievable and then going down to the last play knocking a ball down to win a football game is a fantastic experience."
Just as last year's BYU-Utah game will always be remembered for Beck-to-Harline, this year's version produced a dramatic Hall-to-Collie play.
Collie ran a stop-and-go route toward the sideline and he was able to get past the Ute secondary.
"If one of my tight ends didn't get open, I was going to see if (Collie) could get open," Hall explained. "I saw Austin make a good move and he was wide open. Austin made a great move on the guy. It did surprise me to see how open he was. I just threw it as far as I could and Austin came down and made a great play."
"I was a little surprised they didn't play a prevent package so when I came out of that double move, I was kind of surprised that (Utah's defense) bit on it," Collie said. "I was amazed they didn't play deeper. It was an opportunity to make a big play to get us down the field. It was something we've been practicing every day. That's what happens when you practice. It prepares you for those moments."
Hall completed 17-of-40 passes for 269 yards and one interception. He suffered a shoulder injury last week against Wyoming, but he and BYU coaches downplayed the seriousness of it during the week. After the game, Mendenhall acknowledged that Hall's shoulder injury was "pretty substantial." He added, "For him to go out and play the way he did was remarkable, considering the severity of the injury."
Unga's game-winning touchdown, BYU's only TD of the game, capped a seven-play, 80-yard drive that took only 56 seconds. Prior to that, the Cougars dominated the Utes statistically (BYU outgained Utah in total offense 424-244) but only had three Mitch Payne field goals to show for it.
BYU squandered a touchdown opportunity earlier in the fourth quarter, when Unga, who was wide open, dropped a pass on fourth-and-5 from the Utah 31. The Utes answered with a 15-play, 69-yard drive that chewed up 7:11 off the clock. During that drive Utah converted on five-of-five third-down conversions. BYU got the ball back with 1:34 left. In the first half, Collie caught what appeared to be a 67-yard touchdown catch, but the play was nullified when he was called for an offensive pass interference.
"Little things were killing our drives," Hall said. "We finally put one together at the end to score."
The defeat was a bitter one for the Utes (8-4, 5-2).
"It was a tough loss obviously and it was tough to swallow," said coach Kyle Whittingham. "Each team touched the end zone only one time. I don't know what else to say other than I am proud of our guys. It came down to the wire just like last year and unfortunately it went the other way."
It went BYU's again, thanks in large measure to another amazing play by a Cougar quarterback.