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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson (13) looses the ball at the goal line which would have been a touchback except for a facemask call by Utah in the end zone during the first half as the University of Utah and BYU play football Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — For two-and-a-half quarters against Utah Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, No. 25 BYU flirted with disaster.

And during the third quarter, disaster found the Cougars.

During one stretch in that period, in a fashion reminiscent of last season, BYU suffered a meltdown.

Yet the Cougars battled back, and had a chance to force the game into overtime at the end.

The wild contest ended after BYU's Riley Stephenson's 36-yard field goal smacked the left upright with no time remaining, giving the Utes a 24-21 victory.

BYU (2-1) dropped its third consecutive game to Utah (2-1), dating back to 2010, and will drop out of the rankings when they are released Sunday.

The Cougars were beset by penalties, bad snaps, an overall a lack of composure, and, yes, turnovers.

Once again, BYU was loose with the ball. The Cougars coughed it up seven times last year in a 44-point loss in Provo, and this time they had two turnovers — though it could have been more. BYU had five fumbles and recovered four of them.

In the third quarter, the Utes' opportunistic defense cashed in on an interception by quarterback Riley Nelson, and a bad snap. Nelson, playing with an injured back, completed 17-of-35 passes for 206 yards and two touchdowns.

The two teams went to the locker room at halftime tied, 7-7.

BYU's offense sputtered most of the night and made costly mistakes, particularly in the third quarter. Utah's Ryan Lacy intercepted Nelson with 10:55 left in the third period, and Utah capitalized when Coleman Petersen booted a 48-yard field goal to put Utah ahead, 10-7.

On BYU's next possession, another bad snap skipped past Nelson. Utah's Mo Lee recovered and raced 47 yards for a touchdown as the Utes claimed a 17-7 advantage.

Stephenson boomed another long punt for 53 yards, but Utah struck quickly on a 39-yard touchdown pass from Jon Hays to Dres Anderson. At that point, it was 24-7 for the Utes.

BYU freshman Jamaal Williams scored his first career touchdown early in the fourth quarter on a seven-yard run, making the score 24-14. The Cougars took advantage of a bungled punt attempt by the Utes as the offense took over at the Utah 14. Nelson threw a one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kaneakua Friel to cut the deficit to 24-21.

Later the Cougars converted on fourth-and-12 from their own 19-yard line on a 47-yard pass from Nelson to Hoffman. Justin Sorensen had his 51-yard field goal blocked as time expired, but during the live play — BYU's JD Falslev picked up the ball — fans rushed the field. Officials assessed a penalty on Utah, giving Stephenson a chance to tie the game with no time remaining on the clock. But his field goal drilled the left upright.

Special teams also played a huge role in the first half. A 57-yard punt return by Utah's Charles Henderson set up Utah's first touchdown, in the first quarter, while BYU's first touchdown, in the second quarter, came after a shanked punt by the Utes.

Nelson found Hoffman for a 10-yard touchdown to tie the score at 7-7.

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There was also a blocked field goal attempt by the Cougars' Russell Tialavea.

Meanwhile, BYU's Justin Sorensen — on his first field goal attempt of the season — missed a 44-yarder in the second quarter.

Late in the second quarter, BYU was backed up near its own goal line when Stephenson boomed a 52-yard punt. Utah took over with less than one minute remaining, and on first down, Hays was sacked by Spencer Hadley for a nine-yard loss, essentially killing the Utes' chance of scoring at the end of the half.