Why should Cougar or Ute fans expect any less from this much-anticipated, emotionally-charged matchup? The heart-pounding finishes in recent years certainly rank among the best of the best among any of the major rivalry games in the country.
In the end, the better team won.
BYU, now riding an eight-game consecutive win streak with a 9-2 season record, beat out Utah on all the statistical indicators that mattered most yesterday: 424 total yards to 244; 21 first downs to 14; 269 passing yards to 129; and 155 rushing yards to 115 for Utah. Each team had two turnovers apiece, although the Utes edged BYU in third-down conversions (7-18 to 5-15) and time of possession (31:17 to 28:43).
It was a hard-hitting defensive tussle in which both teams squandered multiple touchdown opportunities earlier in the game.
The MWC's two top defenses lived up to their pregame hype, and the Cougars are the only Division I team in the country that has not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. Utah's only 1,000-yard running back, Darrell Mack, was held to 56 yards rushing on 14 carries and credited the Cougar defense. Mack made a light-hearted comment before the game that he had "more moves than [Unga] will ever have," and his Ute teammates had to eat his words.
Unga rushed for 141 rushing yards on 23 carries for an impressive 6.9 yard per carry average – with an 11-yard game-winning touchdown scamper right up Utah's gut through two tacklers with 38 seconds remaining in the game. It allowed Unga to redeem himself and go from zero to hero status because of an earlier fumble in the blue zone and a dropped fingertip would-be touchdown toss late in the fourth quarter.
Saturday's last-minute win also earned BYU sole possession of its second consecutive Mountain West Conference championship, its 15th consecutive MWC league win, and extended its home field win streak to 12 games. You have to go back to the 80s and 90s BYU record books to find similar numbers.
Indeed, the revived fan and media talk that the Cougars' gridiron glory days are back is both appropriate and fitting. Credit squarely belongs on the head and shoulders of head coach Bronco Mendenhall and his assistants for instituting a difficult complete cultural change within a downtrodden program he inherited less than four years ago. He has restored an on-the-field championship mindset to Provo in a manner that surpasses the off-the-field achievements of legendary Cougar coach LaVell Edwards – one of Mendenhall's biggest supporters.
With the rescheduled San Diego State road game next Saturday as the last remaining regular-season contest, the Cougars hope to repeat their 10-2 record of a season ago heading into an as-yet unknown bowl game scenario – until the Cougars are released from a mighty long-shot BCS bowl possibility.
The Las Vegas Bowl has first dibs on a non-BCS-bound MWC champion, and its organizers and the bulk-ticket scalpers (who pre-purchased thousands of tickets in anticipation of BYU's inclusion) anxiously hope they get a Cougar team that gives them their best chance to fill every seat in the already sold-out December 22 game against an as-yet unnamed opponent.
It's too bad for the Cougars since they deserve far better than the fifth-place Pac-10 finisher.