If you're a newer fan to the rivalry game with BYU, it's hard to really imagine the Utes never being competitive head-to-head with the Cougs. I've been fortunate enough to grow up in an era where Utah really has dominated much of this rivalry and that wasn't always the case - in fact, prior to 1993's win down in Provo, the Utes only won once between 1979 and 1992.
That lone victory, which came at Rice Stadium in 1988, might have been the first indication the rivalry was shifting in Utah's favor. While no one anticipated victory that November day for the Utes, and certainly they were steamrolled a year later down in Provo, it was a remarkable turn of events that, maybe partially, led to the all important road rivalry victory five years later - a win that so radically changed the rivalry that even today it seems BYU has struggled matching Utah's intensity (after all, going back to '93, they're just 3-7 at home against the Utes).
So, while 1993 was the true change in this rivalry, 1988 was the first indication of such change. I guess you could call it the warning shot and nothing has been the same since, even if the coaching staff who guided the Utes to that victory ultimately lost their jobs and BYU remained the dominant program in the state for some time after.
Now unlike the Louisville game, which we revisited a month ago, I don't remember this one because it is a bit before my time. I can't tell you the feeling I had prior to kickoff or the excitement that boiled over with victory. What I can tell you is that it probably felt about as good as Utah's win in the Sugar Bowl because of everything that had preceded this game.
Utah football by all accounts just was not very good in the 1980s. They were worse throughout parts of the 1970s and to add insult to injury - their main rival was putting together its best run in school history. Now, four years prior to this game, the Cougars had wrapped up the national championship, so, they were just coming off the pinnacle of their success and for the Utes, success was almost entirely measured on whether or not the program could just be competitive in most their games. The gap between the two was as wide as the Salt Lake Valley and there was no evidence of that gap closing in '88 when the two teams took the field to play one another.
I'm sure no Utah fan thought victory was even remotely possible and why would they? BYU entered the game 9-2, and though Wyoming had already easily wrapped up the WAC title that year (going an incredible 11-2 and 8-0 in conference play), it was still the Cougars ... and these were still the Utes. But then a miracle happened.
A little tailgating action before the game. This dude is boss.
While Utah definitely wasn't doing much on the football field in the 80s, at least it could out-tailgate BYU. Some things never change.
There is a guy saying, "Utah is going to tromp 'em - beat 'em badly." I HOPE THAT DUDE BOUGHT LOTTERY TICKETS AFTER THIS GAME!
Here's a Utah fan showing off his clever BYU shirt. Back then, it was entirely appropriate to consider yourself a BYU hater because, to be honest, Utah didn't have much to be proud of and that hatred was the only thing keeping the program afloat until Ronnie Mac rolled into town. For Cougar fans, this shirt sums up their perception of Utah fans today - all driven by their hatred of everything BYU. They woefully overestimate that number within the fan base. Still, I always got the sense, and still do, that Ute fans enjoyed the rivalry a bit more ... even when the team was losing.
All right ... okay ...
Seriously ... yellow? We'll give her a pass because she's cute. But good to see Utah fans now know to wear RED.
This was the apex of Scott Mitchell's career. He put a lucky penny in his sock and you know what? THAT'S THE REASON UTAH WON THIS GAME, DAMMIT! That penny should be on display somewhere at Rice-Eccles Stadium because it's the most glorious penny in all the history of pennies.
Believe it or not, this game kinda started disastrous for the Utes. On the freakin' THIRD PLAY OF THE GAME, off a flea-flicker, Scott Mitchell throws an interception to Scott Peterson and I'm sure everyone in attendance threw up their hands and yelled "HERE WE GO AGAIN!"
I would have. I mean, when you're the underdog in a game like this, you can't afford to start it with a turnover. That shoulda been all she wrote for the Utes ... right?
So, the game didn't start as planned for Utah and now they had to hold back the potent Cougar offense. Gulp.
HOLY SHIT! FUMBLEEEEEEE!
BYU did something they rarely ever seemed to do in the 1980s - they put the ball on the ground ... running a wishbone type offense. It resulted in them losing the ball and giving Utah life! Prior to the fumble, though, Sean Covey had methodically picked apart the Utes' defense and appeared to put 'em in scoring position. This play really set the tone for the remainder of the day since a Cougar score here would've been devastating.
Utah's offense COMES ALIVE! Eddie Johnson picks up a huge gain on a swing pass and then a few plays later, PUSHES IT INTO THE END ZONE FOR THE FIRST SCORE OF THE GAME!
OH BOY! Cougs in trouble! LaVell looks pissed...but then, he always looked pissed. Important drive for BYU! WAIT! WAI----IT! INTERCEPTION, UTAH! UTES STOP ANOTHER BYU DRIVE! THIS GAME IS GETTING OUT OF CONTROL!
AND THERE GOES EDDIE JOHNSON! HOLY SHIT LOOK AT THAT RUN!
EJ! ALL ALONE! GO! GO! GOOOOOOOOO! HOLY JESUS, YES!
No. No! NOOOO! A flag! Dammit! The play is overturned on a holding call. The best run of the game is coming back. Utes have to punt.
A lot of jitters early in this one. Utah and BYU both having difficulty getting a feel for each other and that bleeds into the second quarter, though at least the Utes lead!
BUT BAM! Eddie Johnson AGAIN STEPS UP with a huge 62-yard grab! UTAH IS KNOCKIN' ON THE DOOR TO A SCORE! THE FANS CAN FEEL IT, BABY!
On the next play, Eddie Johnson WALKS into the end zone and BAM! Utes lead 14-0. COULD THE BLOWOUT ACTUALLY HAPPEN?
And then, on the fly, one of the most iconic bits of Holy War history as EJ high fives a BYU cheerleader. PURE SWAG.
On the next possession, Covey goes DOWN, THROWS THE BALL INTO THE HANDS OF BIG OL' SAM TAUSINGA AND HE BARRELS 17 YARDS DOWN THE FIELD FOR THE SCORE! OOOOOOOOOOOOH LAWWWWWWWD!
LIFT THAT BALL INTO THE AIR YOU BEAUTIFUL CREATURE! Yes! TOUCHDOWN! Utes lead 21-0. THIS GAME IS BANANAS!
UTAH GONNA ROLL! UTAH GONNA ROLL! UTAH GONNA...
BYU scores with a bit over 7:30 left in the first half. Uh oh. That's okay ... that's okay ... we still got this.
On their next drive, Utah stalls and has to punt. Not good. Still, 21-7, we're okay ... we still got this.
DAMMIT! RODNEY RICE JUST TOOK OFF UP FIELD AND IS GOING TO SCORE A TOUCHDOWN ON THE PUNT RETURN! MOTHER FU...
WAIT! WAIIIIT! BRING IT BACK! There's a flag! Sweet, sweet karma! EJ has GOTTA be yuckin' it up on the sidelines now. BYU gets called for the clip! No touchdown!
Then Sean Covey is SACKED! Back in business! Cougars forced to punt.
After a LONG bomb from Mitchell to Carl Harry, EJ leaps into the end zone and Utah once again balloons their lead to three touchdowns. Huge. Huge. HUUUUGE.
You know LaVell is thinkin' to himself, "oh crap."
Oh crap indeed, BYU! OH CRAP INDEED! BWAHAHA
Right before the half, BYU is putting together a drive. They successfully move down to Utah's 14 and then Covey gets absolutely WRECKED on a sack and fumbles the ball away! THAT WAS LIKE A FREIGHT TRAIN HITTING A GEO METRO! My God.
Utah is rollin' into the half leading 28-7. D-O-M-I-N-A-T-I-O-N!
EVEN BUBBLES IS FEELIN' IT!
BYU gets the ball back to start the half. They need somethin' or you might as well just turn out the lights.
Guess what? THE LIGHTS AIN'T COMIN' BACK ON, BABY! On the second play of the third quarter, Covey is picked off by Sean Knox, which leads to a Utah field goal. About as good as the Cougars could hope for after that disastrous start. It's now 30-7. You know those fans are reaching a fevered pitch. GO GET 'EM!
Cougs have had enough of Covey. LaVell pulls him and puts in the no-name, who-is-it freshman Ty Detmer. He works the ball down the field and finally, BYU does something right ... scoring a touchdown to kinda sorta get back into this one - now trailing 30-14.
But Utah ain't gonna allow no comeback. DENNIS SMITH takes a short pass from Mitchell and dances into the end zone to give the Utes another substantial lead.
THAT'S HOW YOU ANSWER, BABY! Utah workin' the Cougars and now lead 36-14.
EVEN COSMO DOESN'T WANT TO WATCH!
IT'S A BLOODBATH AND IT'S ONLY GONNA GET WORSE!
BAM! LEVON EDWARDS PICKS OFF DETMER AND ROARS DOWN TO THE 30! OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH MAAAAAAAAH GOOOOOOOOOD!
On third and eight, Mitchell finds Harry all alone in the end zone and THE ROUT CONTINUES!
Detmer leads BYU to another score ... and then the Utes fumble the ball away. Back it up. This one ain't over just yet. Especially after Detmer and Chuck Cutler team up on a 43-yard bomb. I DON'T WANT TO WATCH!
BUT BYU TURNS IT OVER AT THE END OF THE THIRD! DRIVE OVER! UTES HOLD! UTES HOLD!
On the next possession, Mitchell hits Smith for a huge gain down the middle and once again, the Utah offense is in biz-ness!
THOSE FANS CAN FEEL IT! UPSET CITY, BABY!
SMITH! AGAIN! TOUCHDOWN, UTES! HIS SECOND OF THE GAME!
After a throwaway BYU touchdown, Eddie Johnson caps off one of the greatest performances in Utah football history with his fourth touchdown of the day.
He finished the game with 117 yards on the ground and 91 through the air. A truly remarkable final performance.
Utah can now taste it! Victory!
THE UTES HAVE DEFEATED BYU! Final score? 57-28! DOMINATION!
Let the celebration begin!
Jim Fassel's career at Utah might've proven a failure, but he at least gave the program a jolt with this win. I think it taught the Utes they could go blow for blow with the Cougars, even if they were overwhelmed a year later (in what would turn out to be Fassel's second to last game at Utah). While '88 didn't ultimately alter the rivalry, it planted the seeds and it certainly helped keep Ute fans sane through an era where BYU dominated on both the local and national level.
Ten years had gone by between Utah's last victory over the Cougars and their commanding 1988 performance. Imagine going a decade without beating BYU today - it's incomprehensibly. Yet for a time in the 70s and 80s, it was most definitely the norm with this rivalry. All that aggression and anger and losing finally boiled over in 1988 and led to one of the more improbable victories in Holy War history.