By Martin Harris
The third-largest crowd in BYU history witnessed a BYU-Utah showdown for the ages Saturday, Nov. 17.
With 16 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, and the Cougars clinging to a three-point lead, Utah”s quarterback Lance Rice had completed four passes in under a minute.
Rice had the Utes driving and the ball on the 43-yard line. Safety Jernaro Gilford stepped in front of Rice”s next pass and picked it off, to seal the 24-21 victory for BYU.
“I saw him (the Utah receiver) turn for the ball,” Gilford said. “I broke on the ball and saw it coming, and picked it.”
Gilford”s sixth interception capped an incredible Cougar comeback. BYU was trailing Utah 21-10 with 5:47 remaining in the game. Quarterback Brandon Doman and running back Luke Staley took over the game with great clutch plays.
Doman completed four passes and Staley accumulated 42 yards, including a seven-yard touchdown to cap the two-and-a-half minute drive. Staley converted for two points to pull the Cougars within three, 21-18.
The much-criticized defense sent the Utes three-and-out. The ball came back to the Cougars on their 41-yard line.
“Our defense picked it up and stopped their run,” linebacker Justin Ena said.
Staley ran for 10 yards on the first play. Receiver Soren Halladay caught a 22-yard pass. Then Staley took a Doman pitch and ran it 30 yards for the go-ahead score.
The 24-21 lead was the only time the Cougars held the lead in the game.
“It feels good to be 11-0,” BYU coach Gary Crowton said. “It feels good to be conference champs; we don”t have to share it with anybody.”
The Cougars finished the conference season 7-0, the first team ever to go undefeated in Mountain West Conference play. BYU also clinched its first outright conference title since 1996.
“It”s hard for anybody to go undefeated,” Crowton said. “I believe we are a top-10 team.”
The dubious streak of home losses to the Utes finally ended. BYU had not beaten Utah in Provo since 1991.
“BYU and Utah always play a hard-fought game,” Ena said. “We got one at home and broke that streak.”
Staley garnered yet another BYU record. On a 15-yard run in the second half, he passed the single-season rushing mark held since 1972 by Pete Van Valkenburg. By the end of the game, Staley held the new Cougar record with 1,433 rushing yards in a single season.
The Cougars kept hopes for a Bowl Championship Series bid alive. Representatives from the Fiesta and Sugar Bowls were in attendance at the game. The president from the Liberty Bowl was also in attendance, and extended the invitation to the Cougars for the Liberty Bowl.
Orders for tickets to the Liberty Bowl will be taken Monday morning, Nov. 19, at the Marriott Center.
If the Cougars are invited to a different bowl game, any money paid toward Liberty Bowl tickets will be credited toward tickets to the other bowl game. This offer is only valid if the tickets are purchased at the BYU ticket office.
The Cougars are off next weekend in preparation for a showdown with the Southeastern Conference”s Mississippi State on Dec. 1.