PROVO — It wasn't 1984. No national championship was on the line. No big-time bowl game, either.

Try convincing the BYU Cougars and Utah Utes of that.

This year, every year, it's for the championship.

"It's the championship game of the state," said BYU safety Andrew Rich. "That's the caliber of game it is."

So lock another one in the vault. Store it alongside Beck-to-Harline, Hall-to-Collie, Ratliff-to-LaTendresse, the Doman Dive, the Kaneshiro Clank and, of course, 34-31.

These guys never take a breather.

BYU quarterback Max Hall connected with Andrew George in overtime on Saturday to give the Cougars a 26-23 win in the annual rivalry. If there was anything on the line, it would be hard to quantify — other than, of course, the state championship, which has become one huge deal.

Screw up against Florida State or Oregon, melt down against TCU, and people will forget.

Lose the BYU-Utah game, it stays with you for life.

"Each time the game comes to this, each time I think I'm getting a handle on it, I'm not," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall.

It gets weird. And tight. And ugly. A couple of million people in Utah, and more outside the state, start feeling short of breath. Does this thing always have to come down to that?

"Always feels like it," said BYU defensive end Jan Jorgensen.

While Mendenhall has been accused of not infusing enough emotion into his team, he wasted no chances on Saturday. The Cougars showed up for warm-ups wearing throwback royal blue jerseys to commemorate the 1984 national championship. Similarly, they added a halftime appearance by the master himself, LaVell Edwards, along with a handful of players from that championship team.

All in all, it was a love-fest supreme.

Except, of course, on the field.

Mendenhall, who insists he prepares the same for every game, ordered his players off-limits to the media after Monday. Even then, he only allowed his captains to talk to the press. Traditionally his players are available until Wednesday.

Small wonder. Going into Saturday's contest, the Utes had won five of the previous seven meetings. Eleven of the last 13 games have been decided by seven points or fewer.

Perhaps most intriguing among the sub-plots on Saturday was the legacy of BYU quarterback Max Hall, whose 31 career wins is a school record. Yet he has been nagged by the criticism that he couldn't win the biggest games. In some ways, that was unfair. He steered the Cougars to a 14-13 win over Oklahoma early this season, but that was with Heisman winner Sam Bradford out with an injury for the second half. But he also executed a 17-16 Las Vegas Bowl win over UCLA in 2007, a 17-10 win over Utah in 2007, and 28-27 and 27-22 wins over Washington and TCU. But the list of other losses in key games was fairly extensive, too: Arizona, UCLA, Utah, Florida State, TCU.

This one would be the swing vote.

So no, nothing big rides on the rivalry game.

Except, of course, your eternal reputation.

As the afternoon waned, it seemed BYU was safely ahead, leading 20-6 in the third quarter. But suddenly the Utes were in their faces, scoring two field goals, a touchdown and a two-point conversion, sending the game into overtime. As Mendenhall noted, in five years since he became head coach at BYU and Kyle Whittingham took over at Utah, there have been two overtimes and two games that went down to the final seconds.

"It was a phenomenal football game," said Mendenhall. "Two teams playing as hard as they can play. There's not much else to say."

Oh yes there was.

"I don't like Utah. In fact, I hate them — I hate everything about them. I hate their program," said Hall, who said his family had beer thrown on them last year at Utah. "I hate their fans. I hate everything. So it feels good to send those guys home. They didn't deserve it."

Long live the rivalry.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com