SALT LAKE CITY — BYU tried.
The Cougars really did.
They even had the help of an anxious Utah crowd that stormed the field during a blocked field goal with no time left. That act gave BYU new life, a chance at overtime.
They survived when they shouldn't have. No, not at all.
But when Riley Stephenson's 37-yard field goal attempt with no time left on the clock due to a penalty hit the left upright and bounced harmlessly away to preserve Utah's 24-21 victory, it was plain to see: BYU must have needed to be humbled.
One year after BYU took a shotgun and blasted away at every Cougar shoe in sight with seven turnovers in a 54-10 Utah romp in Provo, Bronco Mendenhall's team toyed with the same malady from beginning to end in a loss to Utah Saturday night. BYU's offense did a great job of keeping the ball through fumbles and bumbles aplenty for about three quarters.
Then fate strangled Bronco Mendenhall's team, which bent and broke under the weight of a Utah defense that only needed to keep up the pressure and be patient.
The missed field goal by Stephenson at the end was simply symbolic of the entire game for the Cougars.
It all started with BYU's first play of the game, a repeat of a year ago. A center hike to BYU's quarterback, who wasn't ready and had to chase the ball in to the end zone. It was almost Jake Heaps all over again. Riley Nelson recovered the ball and a facemask penalty saved the Cougar offense from instant, repeated disaster.
Two more times in that first half, Nelson would fumble the ball and recover it. After he threw an interception in the third quarter to set up Utah's 10-7 break of a tie game, it struck again and again when Utah hit Nelson's arm twice in the act of passing. BYU survived with the officials reversing both calls from fumbles to incomplete passes.
On that same drive, BYU survived again when Nelson fumbled and Michael Alisa recovered to extend a late third-quarter drive to Utah's 20 that would have given BYU the lead. On the 12th play of that BYU possession, though, BYU's luck ran out.
Like a rerun, a haunting repeat of a year ago, BYU's magic, luck, living right, whatever ran out of the blessing piggy bank.
For the second time in the game, BYU's center hiked the ball when Nelson was not ready and the ball zipped and bounced along the turf toward Utah's goal line. BYU players tried to recover in vain when Utah's Mo Lee scooped it up and ran 47 yards for the easiest touchdown of his career.
Instead of BYU completing a drive for a possible 14-10 lead, the Utes took a 17-7 advantage.
BYU's collective team tightened up like they'd been hit with a pneumatic nut driver.
Bam. After Utah pinned forced a punt, John Hays hit Dres Anderson for a 39-yard post bomb.
Utah raced from 10-7 to 24-7 in the span of 128 seconds to end the third quarter.
Credit has to go to Utah for cleaning up its sloppiness in Logan in the span of a week.
Credit Utah's defensive front for two of three straight victories over the Cougars. For two years, the simple intimidation factor of Utah's front four has to play a part in centers Terence Brown and Blair Tushaus's errant game-opening snaps.
They hadn't done it against anybody last season or in the previous two games this year.
Credit must also go to somebody who wasn't even in the stadium or within two or three time zones: some may not want to admit it, but Norm Chow brought John Hays from Western Nebraska last year, and Hays was the second biggest factor — next to BYU turnovers — in the last two Utah wins, and for sure in Saturday's victory.
Credit Hays for coming off the bench a week ago, doing very well, and taking the baton during Jordan Wynn's retirement week and making it count Saturday.
The first half was exactly how this game was billed. Both defenses ruled the day, holding scoring opportunities down. Utah's offensive line struggled to give John Hays a ton of time and he got sacked twice and hit repeatedly. BYU's offensive linemen engaged in serial illegal motion penalties never displayed before this season.
Credit Utah's defense for that.
Utah defeated BYU because they were capable of shucking off sloppiness and penalties and pressuring BYU's defense into mistakes, miscues, penalties and general unpolished execution on the road.
Credit Kyle Whittingham for taking an embarrassed and humbled football team, jacking it up during the week, finding a game plan that would work — although it took time — and making it work on the field.
For the Cougars?
Another devastating loss to its rival. BYU did not rise up in a huge game.
They came to Rice-Eccles Stadium ranked and ripe to make a run in the polls.
They tried, they really, really did.
But 12 months, give or take a day or two, showed that BYU could not protect the football after a full season of painful memories they tried to forget and bury. Apparently the ground was too hard to shovel. Turnovers surfaced like marbles on a driveway for these Cougars.
And that's a shame for a very good BYU defense. One of two defenses on the field that did not deserve to lose.