Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
Utah fans celebrate near the end of the Utes' decisive win over BYU on Saturday night. They'll next cheer at a BCS bowl game.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said it all came to fruition Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Besides clinching an outright Mountain West Conference title and probable Bowl Championship Series berth, the Utes' 48-24 win over BYU also provided the highpoint of a concerted effort that began after an embarrassing loss at UNLV last season.

"That's when it started," Whittingham said. "This team has had a mindset that has been tough as nails since that point in time."

Utah, which has gone 20-1 after leaving Las Vegas, currently owns the nation's longest active winning streak with 13 consecutive victories.

The run has propelled the Utes back into the national spotlight for the first time since the BCS-busting season of 2004. On Sunday, they moved up to sixth in the BCS standings — while remaining seventh in the coaches and Harris Interactive polls as well as eighth in the AP Top 25.

Utah's bowl destination, however, won't be known until the BCS announcements are made on Dec. 7. The most likely scenarios have the Utes headed to the Sugar or Fiesta bowls.

"It's an unbelievable year, an unbelievable group of kids. In my career I don't know if I've been with a team that's faced as much adversity on game day as these kids have and have gone undefeated," said defensive coordinator Gary Andersen. "The undefeated group in '04 was obviously an unbelievably talented football team. They walked into many games and just completely overwhelmed people."

This year's Utes, he added, faced more adversity and competed against a better top tier of conference teams. Week in and week out, though, they found a way to come out on the positive side.

Such was the case against nationally ranked BYU.

"It was a game of momentum shifts, as usual, it went up and down," Andersen said. "But I thought we tackled well. We were very consistent."

And, he noted, "opportunistic."

The Utes forced BYU quarterback Max Hall into six miscues (five interceptions and a fumble).

"The turnovers were humongous. Any time you get six turnovers it's a positive. The kids did an excellent job — especially in the second half of getting the pass rush on (Hall)," Andersen said. "It didn't really show up in the stats, as far as sacks, but when you watch the game you understood that he was under stress a lot of the time. He knew he had to get rid of that football. So that was something that I thought was the key."

Utah's defense did most of its damage after BYU closed the gap to 27-24 in the third quarter. The Utes picked off four passes and recovered a fumble to end the Cougars' final five possessions.

"We let a couple of drives go. We knew we had to step up," said safety Joe Dale, who picked off a pass in both halves of the game. "The offense put up points for us, so we knew all we had to do was do our job."

The defense wasn't alone.

In his postgame remarks, Whittingham also praised performances by quarterback Brian Johnson and kicker Louie Sakoda. Johnson completed 30-of-36 passes for 303 yards and four touchdowns to lead the offense, while Sakoda was perfect in kicking six PATs and two field goals.

"We played great in every phase of the game today — offense, defense and special team," Whittingham said. "So I'm happy with the effort."

The Utes (12-0) will have a team meeting today and then take the rest of the week off.

EXTRA POINTS: Andersen declined to comment on speculation that he's a candidate to fill the coaching vacancy at Utah State or anywhere else for that matter. ... Middle linebacker Mike Wright led Utah with nine tackles. ... The Utes received one first-place vote in the Harris Interactive Poll. ... Senior Louie Sakoda made two field goals in the game to up his career total to 56, a new conference record. His 21 kicks, 52 PATs and 115 points on the season are all school records. ... Beau Burton, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound running back out of Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., has given Utah an early recruiting commitment. Burton has rushed for more than 2,000 yards this season and has his squad in contention for a third consecutive state championship. ... Sunday bowl projections: ESPN.com is picking a Utah-Alabama matchup in the Sugar Bowl, while CollegeFootballNews.com is predicting a Utah-USC clash in the Fiesta Bowl.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com