Scott G Winterton
Utah Utes defensive end Maxs Tupai (92) runs down Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Aleva Hifo (15) as BYU and Utah play at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018.

PROVO — During the 2018 season, BYU suffered close losses to California, Northern Illinois and Boise State.

But the Cougars’ most heartbreaking defeat happened in the regular-season finale at Utah.

BYU led the Utes 27-7 late in the third quarter and it appeared the Cougars were on the cusp of finally ending the prolonged losing streak against their arch-rivals.

Instead, Utah won its eighth consecutive game against the Cougars as it rallied for a 35-27 victory. The Utes scored 28 unanswered points over the final 16 minutes of the contest.

“It was a tough loss. The way the first half started, we were excited, we had all the energy,” recalled tight end Matt Bushman. “We kind of sucked the energy out of the crowd. Whatever happened in that second half, we couldn’t keep it together. Utah came out and made plays. It stunk that we couldn’t control the lead. But that’s how football goes sometimes. I think our players understand that.”

In the moments after the setback to Utah, coach Kalani Sitake acknowledged what needed to be done.

“As difficult as it is right now to accept the outcome of this game,” he said, “my job is to stay positive and build on it.”

As BYU gets ready to face Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Dec. 21, that bitter loss has served as motivation.

“We really wanted to win. You want to win every game. Whenever you lose a game, you can’t just mope around and be sad for the next couple of weeks,” Bushman said. “You have to focus. Now we know who we’re playing, Western Michigan. They’re a good team and all the focus is on them. We’re excited to play Western Michigan. They beat Northern Illinois. So they definitely have talent. We have to prepare with this extra time that we have to play a good game against them.”

Freshman quarterback Zach Wilson completed 20 of 29 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns and one interception and ran 14 times for 73 yards against Utah.

Besides the outcome, Wilson enjoyed his first rivalry game experience overall.

“It was cool. I would say the nerves going into it weren’t much different than any other game. I would say the whole team was pretty calm and collected going into the game,” he said. “I felt like we were prepared and had a good scheme to come out with. We just needed to keep it up the whole game and be able to finish rather than slowing down a little bit.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, Utah’s just better than us’ kind of a thing. It’s, ‘OK, we let that one slip.’ We know what Utah can bring and we know what we can bring to put up points on Utah,” Wilson added. “We know what this offense and this team is about. Going into the future, we’re going to keep preparing for things like that. We’re not going to let the next one slide.”

BYU won’t have to wait too long to get another shot at Utah. The Cougars and Utes meet in the season opener at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Aug. 29, 2019.

A victory over Western Michigan in the bowl game would help ease a little of the pain of falling to Utah.

“It’s obviously hard when you lose a nail-biter like that. But it’s motivating. Nobody wants to end their season that way,” said freshman wide receiver Gunner Romney. “We want to end our season with a win. It’s been motivation throughout the last couple of weeks to be able to practice and come in strong for this bowl game.”

What did BYU learn from that loss to the Utes?

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“You can never count a team out and you can never let off the gas pedal too early,” Romney said. “I think it will definitely help us in future years. We have Utah in the first game next year. Hopefully, it will help us with that.”

“When you have games like that, you try to learn from it,” said freshman center James Empey. “But we want to end on a good note. We have a chance to do that next week.”

“It’s one of those experiences that will make us stronger in the future,” Bushman said. “It stinks that we couldn’t help the seniors finish out beating Utah. But we have a bowl game to look forward to.”