Crimson blues

It took until the last 3.2 seconds, but the other shoe finally dropped at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Just moments earlier, it looked like another upset victory for the U football team over its archrival. “I thought we had the game sewn up,” said sophomore Brent Casteel, who scored the go-ahead touchdown with just 1:19 on the clock.

But those 79 seconds were just enough for John Beck and the heavily favored BYU Cougars — and even then, they had to sweat it out until the final play, a fourth-and-goal from the Utes’ 11-yard-line.

For a good 10 seconds, the Utah secondary blanketed all five Cougar receivers, forcing Beck to improvise. The senior quarterback darted across the field before finally finding Johnny Harline all alone in the far side of the end zone; Beck threw across his body and Harline caught the game-winning touchdown on his knees as the small cluster of Cougar faithful erupted at the eye-popping turn of events.

“We dropped eight, everyone was covered, he pumped it about three or four times and Beck made a play,” Ute cornerback Eric Weddle said. “You’ve gotta give him credit for that, he found the open guy?Harline was on the left side when it started, and he ended up all the way over there.”

The loss was a particularly difficult one for the Utes, who played arguably their best — or at least cleanest and most complete — game of the year and nearly came out with a victory over BYU for the fifth year in a row.

“Of course it’s gonna be hard to get past this game. To play so well and to come up short like that and have them win on the last play of the game in this rivalry?it’s a tough loss for the whole team,” Brett Ratliff said. “But the sun will rise tomorrow. There is another day, we have another game to play as a team and that’s what we’ve gotta focus on.”

The Cougars erased a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit with a pair of impressive late scoring drives that finally put them in the driver’s seat after two-plus quarters of frustration.

But Ratliff — conjuring memories of his stalwart effort during the game-winning overtime drive of last year’s win in Provo — marched the Utes right back.

Though a missed point-after attempt by the Cougars gave the Utes a chance to tie the game instead of being forced to score a touchdown, touchdown was all the Utes were thinking — and in nine plays over two minutes, they got what they were after.

Ratliff did plenty of the work himself, converting a pivotal fourth-and-two with a six-yard scramble and completing 7-of-8 passes on the drive overall.

But his big-play target was Casteel. The second-year wideout put the Utes into Cougar territory as he hauled in a 37-yard strike over the middle despite two defenders’ hands being draped over his arm. Four plays later, Casteel caught a short screen pass and took it across the middle, escaping a few defenders and scampering into the end zone to put Utah up 31-27.

“I felt like that play was going to be a touchdown when it was called, especially being out there and seeing them in the blitz package?as soon as they blitzed I knew it was going to be a touchdown,” Casteel said.

But Beck proved he could win the big game, as his two-minute drill worked to perfection. He and his offense got off 10 plays in just over a minute and got solid yardage on six of them. Harline, the Cougars’ most reliable weapon all year, caught three and McKay Jacobson brought in a crucial 19-yard reception that set BYU up inside the red zone. Three plays later, the Cougars were celebrating on the Rice-Eccles turf while the Utes and their fans could only watch in stunned disbelief.

“It hurts. It hurts a lot. A couple plays before that I was talking to Tavo and I just told him how much he meant to me, and I told him that we got this game,” Casteel said. “So when they went out there and scored, it hurt me because I felt like I lied to him.”

U head coach Kyle Whittingham found no fault in his team’s performance, and for good reason. Neither club turned the ball over all afternoon, and the Utes actually out-gained the high-powered Cougars, 474-429. And they were even able to overcome characteristic flaws. While they have typically had trouble when forced to play from behind, the Utes were able to withstand the Cougars’ first-quarter onslaught as Ratliff took over in the second and third quarters. He threw three touchdown passes on the afternoon and finished with 358 yards on 24-of-39 pass attempts. Casteel had 100 receiving yards-the first Ute receiver to reach the century milestone this season-and the Ute defense was able to hold probably all-conference tailback Curtis Brown to just 45 yards on the ground.

“I’m proud of our guys. I’m proud of how they played. They fought their hearts out?tough one to lose,” Whittingham said. “Life goes on. Still got a bowl game to look forward to, get to play together one more time, this group of guys. But I could not be more proud of a football team as I was with these guys this afternoon. It’s a tough emotional loss, there is no way around that.”

Mike Terry

Senior lineman Tavo Tupola lets go of his emotions before walking off the field for the last time after the Utes’ loss to BYU on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Mike Terry

Eric Weddle gets an arm in the face of BYU’s Johnny Harline to no avail. Harline caught the ball for a fourth-quarter touchdown during the BYU game on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.