One for the ages: Utes need overtime, but still knock off Cougars for fourth straight year

PROVO-The Utah sidelines erupted as John Beck’s fourth-down desperation-heave fell helplessly to the ground. Just minutes after surrogate Ute quarterback Brett Ratliff found Travis LaTendresse for a go-ahead 25-yard touchdown in the first possession of overtime, the U defense swallowed up BYU’s highly touted offensive attack to put the finishing touches on a 41-34 upset victory.

“I saw that pass go up, and I was like, oh my gosh. I realized I couldn’t get there…I was frozen in time,” Eric Weddle said of Beck’s final throw. “We were all frozen in time.”

After taking a 24-3 halftime lead in front of a stunned LaVell Edwards Stadium crowd, the Utes watched as the Cougars gradually cut into their lead before finally forcing the game into overtime. But after a season’s worth of late-game collapses, they wouldn’t let the most important game of the season slip away.

After stopping BYU on a potentially game-winning drive at the end of regulation, the Utes got the ball first in overtime when BYU won the coin toss and elected to play defense. The Utes wasted no time asserting their will, as Ratliff-capping off a remarkable debut start-found an open LaTendresse deep over the middle for the 25-yard scoring strike on their second overtime play.

“Travis ran a great route. The middle was wide open, and he made a great catch,” Ratliff said. “It was a perfect play, a perfect call and a perfect situation. It was awesome.”

The Cougars did not find the same success on their possession. On second-and-nine, Beck was forced out of the pocket and scrambled for four yards. But he couldn’t find an open receiver on either of his next two pass attempts as the Utes clinched their fourth-straight victory over their long-time rivals.

“No doubt about it, it was the sweetest victory I’ve ever been a part of,” U head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I could not be prouder of a football team than I am of those guys.”

Due to starting quarterback Brian Johnson’s season-ending injury last week, the Utes entered Saturday’s showdown as heavy underdogs. They set

the tone early, however, and took the sold-out Provo crowd out of the game. After forcing a three-and-out on the Cougars’ opening drive, the Ute offense, thought to be ripe for the picking with a new starting quarterback in tow, got right to work.

Ratliff, showing exceptional composure considering the circumstances, led the Utes into the end zone on five plays. Quinton Ganther’s 34-yard run set up the game’s first touchdown, a 3-yard pass from Ratliff to Brian Hernandez.

The Utes added to their early lead later in the quarter, as Ratliff got his tight ends involved, tossing a 15-yard lob to senior Chad Jacobsen.

While Ratliff completed just four passes in the first half, he used his feet (62 yards on six carries) and relied on a tenacious rushing attack from Ganther (116 yards on 11 carries) to help the Utes open up a three-touchdown advantage at the break.

“Rat played amazing today,” LaTendresse said. “He was able to step up and answer, especially in the big rivalry game. He played incredible, especially to come into a stadium like this with all that pressure.”

Despite their poor first-half performance, the Cougars wouldn’t go quietly, and they staged their comeback largely on the legs of Curtis Brown, who had 101 of his 153 yards in the second half. On BYU’s first possession of the third quarter, the junior tailback caught two passes for 48 yards and capped off the drive with a 5-yard scoring run.

He almost singlehandedly brought the Cougars to within one score on the team’s next drive, ripping off a 64-yard touchdown dash to cut the deficit to 24-17.

Utah was able to hold off the Cougars for a while, and once again it was Ratliff who got the Utes on the board. Midway through the third quarter, Ratliff accounted for every yard of an eight-play scoring drive-four carries for 25 yards and three completions for 81 yards-that culminated in a 48-yard touchdown strike to Hernandez.

“One of our faults this year is that we’ve let teams back in the game,” junior safety Casey Evans said. “The difference tonight was that we let them back in, but we finished it.”

Todd Watkins and Matt Allen caught touchdown passes for the Cougars as they eventually caught up with the Ute offense and nearly pulled off a comeback. But their second-half efforts weren’t enough as Utah held on, qualifying for bowl contention in the process.

“The defense rose up and had enough in the tank to get it done,” Whittingham said.

The Utes’ upset victory not only stunned the city of Provo and Vegas oddsmakers alike, but it also may be just the saving grace their season needed. A season of unfulfilled expectations had rendered their bowl hopes unlikely, but beating BYU may punch their ticket into the postseason.

While most people thought this was the year the Cougars, who came into the game having won four in a row, would finally snap their losing streak to Utah, that wasn’t the case. In the biggest game of the year for both clubs, the Utes made up for a season full of bad memories and missed opportunities by not turning the ball over all day and outgaining the Cougar offense, 491-485. Ratliff accounted for 352 of those yards and was responsible for five total touchdowns, while Ganther finished with 131 yards on the ground.

The Cougars, meanwhile, for all the progress they made this season, end their season with their heads down after another disappointing loss to their arch nemesis.

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