SALT LAKE CITY — Without much imagination, one could argue the Utah football team could very well be riding a 13-game winning streak against BYU going into this week's game, except for six big plays in six games won by BYU.
The Utes have won seven of the 13 games played between the two rival schools since 1997, but every Utah loss has come down to one play in the final minute or so, including two on the final play of the game.
In all but one of the games, the Utes came from behind and appeared to be on the verge of victory, only to have it snatched away by their own mistake or a terrific play by the Cougars.
When reminded earlier in the week of the uncanny collection of last-minute and last-second losses to his alma mater, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham chuckled and said, "Don't twist the knife."
"There have been some close calls we have been on the wrong end of," said Whittingham, referring to the finishes, not any officials' calls. "There have been several ballgames in the last 13 years that could have gone either way at the very end of the game. We just needed to find a way to make some more plays."
Let's go back and review the six plays the Utes would love to have back.
1998 — The Utes had fought back from a 26-17 deficit, with a 96-yard kickoff return by Daniel Jones and a couple of passes from Jonathan Crosswhite to Jones to set up a field goal. Freshman Ryan Kaneshiro had a 32-yard yard field goal to win the game, but it boinked off the right upright with five seconds left. A couple of inches to the left and the Utes would have taken a 27-26 victory.
2000 — Utah made another gallant comeback at home, recovering from a 26-10 deficit, and the Utes were about to make amends for the '98 defeat and get the 27-26 victory that had been snatched away by a goalpost two years earlier. All they needed was to hold the Cougars on 4th-and-17 from the BYU 13-yard line with 1:04 left. Instead, Brandon Doman found Jonathan Pittman with a 39-yard gain down the middle. Three plays later, the Cougars pushed across the winning score on a 4-yard run by Doman for a 34-27 victory.
2001 — This one may have been more than one key play, but the Utes would love to have back the winning touchdown play, a 30-yard run by Luke Staley down the east sideline with just 1:16 left. The Utes thought they had this one in the bag, leading 21-10 with under four minutes to go, until BYU scored two touchdowns on long drives. Utah had one more chance to win or tie, getting to the BYU 30 thanks to a tackle-eligible pass to Jordan Gross, but BYU's Jernaro Gilford intercepted Lance Rice to end the threat and seal the Cougars' 24-21 victory.
2006 — After four straight wins against BYU, the Utes appeared poised for a fifth straight when, as in 1998 and 2000, they came from behind for an apparent winning score, this time to make it 31-27 with 1:18 left. However, the Cougars moved down the field behind John Beck and reached the 11-yard line with 3.2 seconds left. If the Utes could hold the Cougars on one final play, victory would be theirs. The Utes opted not to pressure Beck, who danced around for 12 full seconds before finally finding Jonny Harline in the left corner of the end zone for the winning touchdown in a 33-31 thriller.
2007 — It was all but over after the Utes had gone ahead 10-9 on a seven-minute drive by Brian Johnson and then put the Cougars in a 4th-and-18 hole from their own 12-yard line and under a minute to play. However, Max Hall found Austin Collie behind the Ute secondary for a 49-yard completion. Two Ute penalties put the Cougars in position to score, which they did with Harvey Unga's 11-yard run for a 17-10 win.
2009 — Utah again came back from a game-long deficit to tie the score at 20 with 40 seconds left on Joe Phillips' fourth field goal of the game. In overtime, he made another kick and the Utes just had to keep the Cougars from scoring to grab the win. But on second down from the 25, quarterback Max Hall found Andrew George between two Utah defenders and he ran the final 15 yards to the end zone for a 26-23 overtime victory.
So of all the aforementioned losses, which one sticks in the craw of Whittingham the most?
He wouldn't say.
"I can name every loss since I've been the head coach here, and they're all painful," said Whittingham. "You can drive yourself nuts if you dwell on things like that."
Of course, Cougar fans can point to plays in the Utah victories that might have made a difference for them, too, but the only game that came closest to a do-or-die play was in the 2005 game when Utah scored in overtime and BYU failed to score. If the Cougars had not allowed Utah to score first, they could have perhaps won on a field goal.
"If you've been in this business long enough, everything probably evens out," said Whittingham.
If that's the case, the Utes have a lot of last-minute wins over the Cougars coming over the next few years.