2005 was a difficult season for Utah. Not only did they have to live in the shadows of the greatness that was the 2004 undefeated team, they had to do so while struggling through huge parts of the season. It started with a loss, in overtime, to TCU and kind of bled over the next few weeks as the Utes strung together a three-game losing streak - their first in three seasons. It was bad not just because they were losing ... but how they were losing. They fell, on the road, to a bad North Carolina team and then got stuffed, on 4th and goal from the 1, against Colorado State a week later. The bottom kind of fell out after that with a loss to San Diego State at home.
The Utes, not even a year removed from perfection, sat at 3-3 ... with a 1-2 record in Mountain West play. As would be a common theme in those early years of the Whittingham era, Utah bounced back, but even that wasn't almost enough. After winning two straight and pulling to within a game of six wins, and therefore guaranteeing the program a third straight bowl appearance, the Utes did the most Utah thing possible back then ... they lost to their nemesis, the New Mexico Lobos. At home, no less, and worse, in the process, lost quarterback Brian Johnson and wide receiver John Madsen for the season.
Johnson's injury actually happened on the final drive of the game and, with seemingly everything on the line, his backup, junior college transfer Brett Ratliff, stepped in and promptly picked up a first down and then ... threw an interception. Game over.
It was an ugly loss not just because Johnson went down, though that had a lot to do with it, but also because the Utes looked absolutely sloppy in the second half. They led 27-19 at the half and would go on to lose 27-31. They couldn't muster one score in the game's final two quarters and Johnson's injury or not, none of this loss was actually because of it.
So, as the fans filed out of the stadium, many stunned and distraught, it became clearer and clearer Utah's season was going to end on the bad side of .500. After all Urban Meyer had done in Salt Lake his two years here, after the undefeated, BCS busting season, after finally arriving ... the Utes found themselves with almost the exact same record as the team that got Ron McBride fired. At that moment, at that dark hour, it kind of felt like the Urban Meyer era had never really happened. 5-6, 10-2, 12-0 and ... 5-6. That's what it was setting up for, anyway, as there was no way, a week later, Utah could go down to Provo and knock off the streaking Cougars.
No way. No how. Wasn't going to happen.
The buildup to that game was much like this week's ... a lot of fans asking if we had a prayer. With an injured quarterback and an opponent who had finally found their swagger, things looked pretty depressing.
This was going to be my first-ever game down in Provo. I had actually purchased tickets prior to the season going south and, at the time of purchase, felt pretty confident this game was going to be as much a formality as it was in 2004. Boy was I wrong.
I remember the night before exceptionally well because of how bizarre the feeling was. A year prior, I was nervous and excited and hardly slept a wink because I wanted to get out to the stadium to experience ESPN GameDay. I awoke, actually, at five, after maybe a couple hours of sleep, and left my house by six to get down to the stadium. I froze my butt off, watched the flakes of snow shake from the sky, and cheered as loudly as I could when Lee Corso put on Swoop's head. I then tailgated, for hours, until the game started and at no point in that moment did I ever question whether Utah would win. Okay ... maybe there was a bit of question because, you know, it was a rivalry game.
But this was a different feeling. I had stayed up and watched the movie Copycat the night before and dozed off around 1 or 2 in the morning. But there was hardly any nerves, certainly no worry, because I had either fooled myself into indifference or I really believed, deep down, that Utah had no chance of winning this game. We hit I-15 quite early because it was a pretty early game, a 1:00 start, if I'm not mistaken, and made it to Provo with about an hour to spare.
As I said, I wasn't nervous ... wasn't scared ... wasn't anything. We parked and then began tailgating with some other Utah fans until it was time to head into the stadium. It wasn't until the walk to LaVell Edwards Stadium that I started finally getting butterflies in my stomach. I think I realized, throughout the night before and the entire morning trip, that I was just fooling myself into not caring ... probably setting myself up to accept a loss knowing everything that had happened and how big of dogs we were entering this game. But dammit, as we walked closer to the gates, and actually entered the stadium, I felt that same tinge of anxiety and excitement we've all felt prior to any other Holy War kickoff.
We were actually still wandering up to our seats when the game started and I remember hearing a huge roar of the crowd when John Beck launched a pass to, I believe, Curtis Brown, who was wide open and surely would have had a touchdown had he caught it. I guess the fact that pass fell incomplete, and it might've been the first play of the game, was a good omen. Because, for the next two quarters, the Utes would systemically decimate the Cougars' secondary through a mixture of passing and running from Brett Ratliff.
It was a shocker. If you felt 2011 was stunning because of its margin, amplify that by a million and you'll have the first half of the BYU-Utah game from 2005. It took only minutes for Utah to go up 7-0 and it felt like before we could even stop cheering that score ... they found themselves up 14-0.
It was beautiful. Everything was going right. Utah led 24-3 at the half and looked every bit like the team we had hoped to see at the start of the '05 season.
But that lead wouldn't last. As good as Utah was in the first half, BYU was a bit better in the second. Fighting a deficit the entire time, they clawed their way back into the game ... slowly, but surely, and eventually sent the contest into overtime. The Utes actually had a chance to win it at the end with a field goal by Dan Beardall ... but in typical Utah fashion, the kick was blocked.
Overtime was frenzied. It was already getting dark, and the Cougars had all the momentum, but Ratliff, boy, Ratliff stepped up and delivered a perfect pass to Travis LaTendresse, giving the Utes a big-time seven point lead. On their possession, BYU was regulated to broken plays and panicked moments that eventually led to Beck heaving a prayer into the end zone on fourth down. It was almost caught by Michael Reed ... for what could have been the original Beck-to-Harline obsession that has permeated out of Provo ever since the 2006 contest.
In the end, Kyle Whittingham and the Utes won, saving their season and certainly their coach's legacy. I've mentioned this a few times on Block U, and I still believe it today - had BYU won that game and the Utes finished with a losing season, I'm not so sure the Whittingham experiment continues as long as it has. Maybe I'm wrong, but I just don't know if he could have come back from a 5-6 campaign on the heels of the 22-2 Urban Meyer era. Maybe he does. Either way, it was made moot by that game ... the Utes won, and ran their streak to four straight over the Cougars.
No one gave 'em a chance. No one. It just wasn't supposed to happen. Utah was too injured, too overwhelmed to beat what was turning out to be a pretty good BYU team. I think people forget just how good the Cougars looked heading into that game. They were riding a three-game win streak and had actually won five of their last six - that lone loss coming against Notre Dame, who almost upset #1 USC that year, in South Bend. They were firing on all cylinders and the Utes pushed back hard.
I hope to see something similar this Saturday. I know the times are different. I know Hays is a bit more known than Ratliff and BYU is better this year than those Cougars - but I hope for the same intensity. I want to see an aggressive offense like we saw in that '05 game ... an offense that puts the Cougars on the defensive in more ways than one. This team has the talent to do some damage, but of course, it's going to take a solid performance by the line to get it done.
2005 showed us that no matter what the pundits and odds maker say, you never count out Utah in a rivalry game.
Let's keep that thought alive for another year. Let's recapture that magic. Let's beat BYU again.