Now that I've had 24 hours to really digest this game, all I can really say is wow. I know it's not much, but what an amazing game by the Utes. I felt the game would be close, maybe even coming down to the final few minutes, but outside of a couple of scares in the second and third quarters, the Cougars really struggled, especially on defense.
First, let me begin with what led up to this game. There is no question that the buildup could never really compare to what we witnessed in 2004. The outcome of that game was pretty much a formality before even a down was played. Ute fans were excited to play BYU, but it ultimately took a backseat to the whole probability of busting the BCS. It was such a monumental moment that even ESPN College GameDay went live from the south-west corner of Rice-Eccles Stadium's parking lot. The Utes were trying to do something no other non-BCS team had done, but beyond that, do something that no one thought would ever happen at the University of Utah and that was to go undefeated. When the final seconds ticked off the clock in that game, a 52-21 Utah victory, the fans stormed the field, went a little nuts and held a fiesta right there on the 50-yard line.
This year, it was much different. While I think many of us felt Utah would win, no one could say for sure that victory would be attained. This was not the 5-5 BYU team Utah faced four years earlier, this was a legitimate top-25 program that had only lost once in 20 games. They also had won two straight against Utah and even though both came in improbable fashion, in the back of my mind, the thought of a 3rd straight victory by BYU over Utah was just as unbearable as watching them end Utah's undefeated season. So heading into Saturday's game, the mindset for most fans was just not the same. There was no foregone conclusion here like in 2004 and no pre-BCS celebration. Instead, we were given arguably the best buildup to the game in Holy War history. Not because of what Utah was on the cusp of doing, but because of what Utah and BYU had both accomplished the past eleven games. Add in the past two Holy Wars and you have the makings for a pretty spectacular show.
Now it's debatable as to whether or not the week leading up to this Holy War was more exciting than in 2004, but I'm not so sure it really is debatable as to what ending was better. If I had to choose, without a doubt, it would be 2008. Of course, this isn't about comparing the two teams, maybe we can get into that another day, but I think it really shows just how much this win meant not only for the current Utah players, but the entire program as a whole. It also doesn't hurt Utah managed to once again bust the BCS by defeating their rival.
But the fact this game was not really decided before kickoff, like the last time so much was on the line for Utah, really made it feel far more important than in 2004. Utah wasn't only playing for the BCS, they were playing to reclaim state supremacy and an outright conference championship, something only one coach had managed to do in over 50 years. That coach, Urban Meyer, bolted after the most successful season in Utah history and many people wondered if Utah could ever again see the type of success we all witnessed that year. Kyle Whittingham and his band of gritty soldiers showed Saturday that yes, it could be reached once more.
So as the fans filed into Rice-Eccles Stadium late Saturday afternoon -- many with a tinge of doubt -- and the seniors took the field for the final time, Utah began its final home game of the 2008 season. A season which started with high hopes, but hardly anyone expecting this high of hopes. A victory at Michigan, followed by close contests against Air Force and Oregon State and then an epic showdown with TCU. All those games, all that work, all the pain and comebacks and doubt led to this one moment.
They were not going to be denied.
When Jerome Brooks tore it up the field for a 25-yard gain on the second play of the game, I knew it was going to be Utah's night. Sure, the drive ended with only three points, but it became very clear the Utes were going to have their way with BYU's defense. My only concern at that moment was whether or not Cougars could answer and turn the game into a shootout. And after BYU roared back to tie it at 17-17 with fourteen unanswered points, my concerns became grave.
Then Max Hall began his meltdown. Utah's defense did what it needed to do, stepping up and forcing Hall into making mental mistakes. He did. Right before the half, Joe Dale intercepted Hall and then Hall followed it up by losing his cool, tacking on a 15 yard penalty to the 9-yard return by Dale. When this happened, you could feel a monumental shift in momentum and it became apparent when, right before the half, Brian Johnson found a streaking David Reed for the 32-yard touchdown. Utah took a fairly comfortable 27-17 lead into the half.
In the third quarter, things were a bit more shaky. Hall led the Cougars on a long scoring drive, walking into the end zone on an 11-yard touchdown with about seven minutes left, cutting Utah's lead to three. At that moment, BYU appeared to have the momentum and after forcing the Utes to go three and out on the next drive, they slowly inched downfield once again. But while at their 43, Hall was intercepted again, this time by Robert Johnson and at that moment, you could tell it was over. Though Utah failed to score, Hall was a mess and fumbled the ball on his next possession. That set up a Utah touchdown to blow the game open and the Utes never really looked back.
Hall would finish the night throwing five interceptions, all but two would lead to Utah scores (the final one came as the game was ending). The Utes' defense held BYU to only seven second half points and they were scoreless the entire fourth quarter. When the game was still in reach for Hall and the Cougars, he wilted, collapsing under Utah's defense and melting down like never before. Utah found the end zone six times Saturday night and made sure this was one rivalry game that would not come down to the final play. And just like four years earlier, it was a game where the celebration began long before the final seconds.
So when Brian Johnson and the Utes took to the victory formation, the fans eagerly awaited on the sidelines. The ball was hiked, Johnson's knee met the turf and a flood of crimson poured out onto the field. It was like 2004, but a lot more happier and a lot more relief. At least for me.
After 2004, many thought it would be a long time before Utah fans witnessed an event similar. I don't think anyone, especially after the UNLV debacle in 2007, could have imagined it happening this soon. I know I didn't and even though I've hoped the past four seasons Utah could put together a string of impressive wins to reach this moment, I never fully believed they would. But when this team scored 11 points in 90 seconds against the Beavers, I knew they were destined for something great. Saturday night, they made it official.