Smith leads Utes over Cal in 31-24 thriller

A new starting quarterback, a Pac-10 opponent, a string of missing starters and the pressure of playing in front of an audience of millions across the nation-and none of it could hold down the U football team, which defeated the California Golden Bears 31-24 Thursday night in front of the largest crowd in the history of Rice-Eccles Stadium.

First-year head coach Urban Meyer earned the first major win of his U coaching career against an opponent that took MWC favorite Colorado State to the wire in Fort Collins, Colo., just one week ago.

“This win is monumental,” Meyer said. “It’s a win [after which] we know we’ll be re evaluated before we go play Colorado State [Sept. 27], the best team in the conference.”

Behind sophomore quarterback Alex Smith, who was starting the first game of his college career, the Utes (2-1) controlled the pace of play for most of the game on their way to the win, and more than made up for their heartbreaking loss at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field last Saturday.

“Coming in against a Pac-10 game, a home game, I think it’s one of the better situations to be in for an opening start,” said Smith, who completed 18 of 27 passes for 136 yards. “We really felt prepared coming into this game.”

California rallied from a two touchdown deficit to take a three point, third-quarter lead, but the inexperienced Smith showed calmness and poise as he marched the offense down the field for a tying field goal.

Later in the fourth quarter, senior tailback Brandon Warfield scored the game-winning touchdown from 14 yards away with just 1:06 left on the game clock.

“It was like heaven,” Warfield said. “I don’t know how heaven is, but the end zone was just like it, I think. It was one of the most open plays I’d seen all game, and I was really excited to get it. But I’m just happy we came out of this game with a win.”

A California fumble on the ensuing offensive drive cut short any hopes of a Cal comeback.

A total of 46,768 fans showed up to the stadium Thursday night, the most in the stadium’s history-proving that Meyer’s addition has, indeed, sparked enthusiasm among the locals.

From the start, it was obvious that the game plan of the Cal defense was to stop Ute tailback Brandon Warfield, who came into Thursday’s contest averaging 177.5 rushing yards per game, fourth-best in the country.

While the Bears’ D managed to contain Warfield, limiting him to less than 100 yards for the first time this season, he still hurt California when it counted.

Midway through the first quarter, Utah linebacker Corey Dodds forced and recovered a Cal fumble, setting the U offense up deep in enemy territory.

The Utes’ workhorse all year, Warfield made the turnover count, taking a carry 19 yards to the 1-yard line on second down to set up first and-goal.

The senior all-American candidate pounded it into the end zone on the very next play to give Utah an early 7-0 lead.

It was only minutes later that Warfield and the U offense struck again. The Utes once again opened up in good field position at the California 27-yard line. Smith, who found quite a few running lanes on the night and finished with 71 rushing yards, took a QB keeper 19 yards to the Cal 5.

Warfield was called upon again on the very next play, scoring on a 5 yard dash to give the Utes a 14-0 cushion.

The Bears finally started moving on the U defense in the second quarter, eventually scoring on a 21 yard toss from Aaron Rodgers to junior wideout Geoff McArthur.

But Utah kept its opponent at a reasonable distance and returned the favor just before halftime. On a drive that began on their own 39, the Utes sustained a 61-yard offensive drive that ate up nearly six minutes of clock time.

The drive culminated in Smith’s 1-yard nosedive into the end zone that gave Utah a comfortable halftime lead.

Things began to unravel in the third quarter. Cal’s pass rush started consistently getting through the U offensive line, putting pressure on Smith that stalled the Utes’ offense and kept them deep in their own territory.

Down 21-10 in the third, the Bears also took advantage of two poor punts off the leg of new U punter Matt Kovacevich. With possessions that began on the Utah 28-yard line and the Utah 34-yard line, Cal scored touchdowns on both drives to open up its first lead of the ballgame, 24-21.

“The third quarter was awful,” Meyer said. “And we were backed up because of a couple bad punts and a penalty.”

Momentum gone, the Utes pulled it together in the fourth. An early 35-yard field goal from Bryan Borreson knotted the game again.

With six minutes to play in regulation, Cal kicker Tyler Fredrickson missed a 54-yard field goal attempt to give the Utes prime field position on their own 37.

And that’s when the game’s deciding drive began.

The Utes played conservatively and methodically marched the ball down the field, wearing down the Cal defense before finally reaching paydirt, which all but sealed the game.

“On that last drive, I don’t think Alex Smith played like a quarterback who had only played 15 plays in his life. He did a great job,” Meyer said. “Quarterbacks are funny people, and he did a heck of a job.”

After a third quarter that began to look a bit reminiscent of the Utes’ past second-half breakdowns, the entire Utah squad settled down and turned in an impressive fourth quarter performance.

“We just got out of the hole. In the third quarter, we spent it on the 20 yard line or 5-yard line, and we put our defense in a bad position. So, we finally got in good field position and got the wind at our backs and played a lot better.”

[email protected]