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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Fans on sidelines at the end of the game as the University of Utah defeats BYU 24-21 in football Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
It's uncanny. I don't know if you find a rivalry in the country that's had the drama that this one has had. —Kyle Whittingham

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham wasn't sure where to begin after Saturday's 24-21 victory over 25th-ranked BYU.

"There were so many storylines in the game," he said. "But the bottom line was that we got what we wanted. I am very proud of the coaching staff and players."

The Utes, he joked, won the game three times. Fans stormed the field on each occasion. The celebration, though, didn't officially begin until Riley Stephenson's 36-yard field goal attempt for BYU hit the left upright just before midnight.

Two other possible conclusions were wiped away moments earlier when one second was added to the clock after a BYU incompletion, and an unsportsmanlike penalty was called when Utah fans interfered with play following a block by Star Lotulelei on a 51-yard field goal attempt by Justin Sorensen.

Then came the real finale.

"It's just another dramatic end, like has happened so many times," Whittingham said. "It's uncanny. I don't know if you find a rivalry in the country that's had the drama that this one has had."

The latest installment provided the Utes (2-1) with a much-needed boost as they prepare for Saturday's Pac-12 opener at Arizona State.

"(We've) definitely got to take momentum in there with us," said quarterback Jon Hays, who threw two touchdown passes in his first start of the season.

The scoring strikes helped Utah jump out to a 24-7 lead after three quarters. BYU, however, managed to climb back into contention down the stretch.

"That was the disappointing part of the game," Whittingham said. "We had them on the ropes and couldn't knock them out." Delivering the final punch, though, isn't so easy in a rivalry game. Even so, the Utes ultimately secured the end result they wanted — a third consecutive win over the Cougars.

"It was the best ever," said cornerback Moe Lee, who had a 47-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown in the third quarter. "This is the best atmosphere I ever played in, in my life."

Utah improved to 2-1 despite several statistical shortcomings. BYU finished with more total offense (312-245), first downs (25-14) and third-down conversions (6-4). The Utes managed only 49 yards on the ground, playing without running back John White. The senior, who told reporters he was "100 percent" earlier in the week and added that he was ready to pound BYU, didn't play a single down because of an ankle injury.

"He probably could have played in a limited role," Whittingham said while noting that the medical staff recommended that White not play. "But why risk it?"

The hope is that White will be 100 percent for ASU.

Although the numbers don't tell the tale, Whittingham thought the offense took a step forward against BYU. The Utes didn't turn the ball over once while spreading things around — 11 players made receptions and four rushed for positive yardage.

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The defense had two takeaways — Lee's fumble recovery and an interception by Ryan Lacy — to highlight a solid outing. Utah defenders combined for eight tackles-for-loss, five pass breakups, four sacks and three forced fumbles.

EXTRA POINTS: The win was Utah's first over a ranked team since beating No. 15 Pittsburgh in 2010 . . . The Utes were penalized 10 times for 112 yards . . . Redshirt freshman Jarrell Oliver had a team-high 24 yards rushing . . . Senior Reggie Dunn was the leading receiver with six catches . . . Freshman punter Tom Hackett placed three kicks inside the 20 in his collegiate debut.

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