"With the break, we didn't want this to linger a couple years. In that respect, we certainly wanted to win this one," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
It was Utah's fourth-straight win over BYU (1-2), and in the rivalry within a rivalry, Whittingham improved to 6-3 against BYU's Bronco Mendenhall.
"The game was close; one or two plays was the difference," Mendenhall said.
Make that the difference in the red zone. In what was mostly a defensive struggle, the tipping point was Utah's ability to cash in drives with touchdowns, while BYU failed to finish until it was too late.
"A loss is a loss," said BYU safety Daniel Sorensen. "It hurts. This one definitely hurts."
Trailing by a touchdown with 2:49 remaining, BYU took over on its own 38 and drove to the Utah 35, but after two incomplete passes and a sack, Utah's Michael Walker intercepted Taysom Hill's 4th-and-13 pass to seal the win. BYU got the ball back one more time with 43 seconds left, but the Utah defense held again, forcing four straight incompletions.
"I will have a smile on my face forever [because] I never lost to BYU," said Utah receiver Dres Anderson, who made the play of the game, a 74-yard catch and run. "I can say that for years and years."
Sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson threw two short touchdown passes for Utah and was 24 for 35 for 273 yards. His counterpart, Taysom Hill, was just 18 for 48 for 260 yards, and the interception.
"We stuck together and did an awesome job," Wilson said.
The Cougars got into the end zone for the first time with 5:13 remaining in the game on Mike Alisa's 1-yard touchdown run to cut Utah's lead to seven, 20-13
Before that Cougar touchdown drive, JD Falslev returned a punt 58 yards to the Utah 13, but on 4th-and-4 with 8:36 remaining in the game, Walker knocked down a Hill pass intended for Eric Thornton in the end zone, preserving the Utes' 20-6 lead. That was the defensive play of the game.
"We got beat tonight in the trenches. Credit goes to Utah. They were better than we were there," said BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae.
In short: Utah scored 20 of a possible 28 available points in the red zone; BYU scored 13 of 35.
The Utes (3-1) appeared to have clinched it with an impressive 12-play, 79-yard drive that started with 1:59 remaining in the third quarter and ended with 12:44 remaining in the game when Karl Williams caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Wilson. The drive came after Mendenhall elected to punt on 4th-and-1 from midfield.
It put Utah ahead 20-6 and took the steam out of the Cougars until Falslev's big return.
BYU running back Jamaal Williams suffered an injury after a 2-yard run on 4th-and-1 with 7:58 remaining in the third quarter and taken off the field on a cart.
"Anytime Jamaal is off the field it affects the game," Mendenhall said.
BYU won the yardage battle, 443-402, and ran 95 plays to just 68 for Utah. But the Utes were far more efficient in the red zone after sputtering there twice in the first half and setting for short field goals by Andy Phillips. Utah took a 13-0 lead when Wilson threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Denham and held that advantage into halftime. The TD was set up by Anderson's big play.
"They just made more big plays than us," said BYU defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna.
Held scoreless in the first half, BYU took the second-half kickoff and drove 68 yards to the Utah 14, thanks to Hill's 41-yard run, but the drive stalled and Justin Sorensen's 32-yard field goal finally got the Cougars on the scoreboard with 11:39 remaining in the third quarter. The next time the Cougars touched the ball, they drove to the Utah 3, but the Utes kept them out of the end zone and they had to settle for another Sorensen field goal, trimming Utah's lead to 13-6.
That was the story of the game: Utah's red zone defense came up big when it had to, and BYU's more highly touted defense could not. The Utes have allowed just eight touchdown in 14 of their opponents' red-zone chances.
"You have to give Utah credit. They had a great scheme and they executed it better than us," Hill said.