Dear Deer Hunters:
Sorry to see you skipped the University of Utah-Colorado State football game to chase Bambi and the gang on Saturday. You sure left a lot of empty seats in Rice Stadium. For a while there it looked like you made the smart move, what with the Utes trailing big and the fans (what were left of them) booing. But then the Utes turned it around, and, well, here's what you missed:Coach Ron McBride wore his lucky suit again, but he seemed a little overdressed when he made an angry, though largely unprintable, sideline speech that apparently served as a wake-up call for his sagging defense. Quarterback Mike McCoy had a career day, but he shared top billing with a couple of unsung types, wide receiver Deron Claiborne and cornerback Ernest Boyd, who, if you can believe it, began the season on the bench. What do coaches know, right? It was a player, by the way, who finally suggested the day's big game-breaking play.
The Utes finally prevailed 38-21 to claim their second consecutive victory, and suddenly the Great Recession - i.e. Utah's three-game losing streak - is a distant memory. Can you believe it, the Utes are back to .500 - 4-4 overall and 2-2 in conference play (the Rams, for the record, are 2-6, 2-3).
Not a lot of people saw the Utes' finest performance of the season. The official PAID attendance was listed as 21,000, but only about 16,000 actually put their seats in the seats. Not that the Utes cared. After they fell behind 21-10 in the second quarter, they were wishing EVERYONE had gone deer hunting.
The Rams, who field one of the 10 worst offenses in the entire country and average just 14 points per game, scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, and after the third one the fans booed.
"Yeah, we heard them," said Boyd. "But we just kept playing."
But only after Coach Mac got through chewing their ears. When the defense came off the field, he was waiting for them. "You can't print what I said," says McBride. "Basically, I told them to get off their !#@$*!! and play."
Well, the truth is, Mac was probably already in a bad mood. The king of casual, he hates dress clothes, but for good luck he wore a gray plaid suit coat with gray slacks and a striped tie to last week's UTEP game. After a win there, he had no choice to wear the outfit again on Saturday.
"Don't make a big deal out of it," he said. "It might put a hex on it."
Anyway, for the PG version of Mac's speech to the defense, we turn to Boyd: "He told us to relax and play like we do in practice. He said (CSU) is not a great offense and that we could stop them."
The defense, thanks to four turnovers, did just that, shutting out the Rams the rest of the afternoon while the offense was scoring 28 unanswered points.
No one was more instrumental in the turnaround than Clairborne and Boyd, who both began the season at third string and worked their way into the lineup at least partly because of injuries to players ahead of them.
Boyd, a skinny, junior cornerback who didn't crack the starting lineup until the third game of the season, has produced a conference-leading four interceptions, including two on Saturday. With Utah trailing 21-10 and just 1:51 left in the first half, Boyd intercepted a pass from Anthoney Hill and returned it 32 yards to the CSU 36. Moments later, Harold Lusk scored on an option keeper from three yards out, cutting CSU's lead to 21-17 at halftime.
The Utes scored again on their opening possession of the second half, this time on a 5-yard pass from McCoy to tight end Kurt Haws, for a 24-21 lead. The Utes were nursing the same precarious three-point lead early in the fourth quarter when Boyd struck again.
The Rams had driven all the way to the Ute 20-yard line, and then Boyd picked off a pass at his feet and returned it 25 yards to midfield. On the next play the Utes scored the game-clinching touchdown, which brings us to . . . Claiborne. Like Boyd, Claiborne is a late discovery who didn't make the starting lineup until three weeks ago. On Saturday he notched his second straight 100-yard receiving day, catching 5 passes for 132 yards and the game-clinching touchdown, which came on a play dreamed up by fellow wideout Bryan Rowley.
In the first half, Rowley noticed that when the Utes were in a certain formation CSU's defensive backs barely attended to the weak-side receivers. He suggested sending the weak-side receivers deep, and after Boyd's second interception the coaches obliged. They called the play - 99 Hash. McCoy dropped back, looked left and then threw to Claiborne running a fly down the right sideline. Claiborne was running stride for stride with cornerback Vincent Booker when the ball left McCoy's hands, but by the time it came down he had three strides on his defender and a 45-yard touchdown play.
"All I could think of was that this would be my first touchdown of the year," recalled Claiborne, who has averaged 18.2 yards on 24 catches, reminding some of his brother, Robert, a receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Paired with Rowley, Claiborne gives the Utes two receivers who can turn even the shortest pass into a big play. On Saturday, Rowley caught 5 passes for 104 yards.
Of course Claiborne and Rowley have McCoy to thank for their big numbers. The junior quarterback completed 21 of 25 passes for a career-high 377 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception, as Utah collected 556 yards. Following the second-quarter interception, he completed 13 consecutive passes.
"McCoy was absolutely fantastic today," said McBride.
McCoy, who ran for 61 yards, was cool under pressure. On the 45-yard scoring pass to Claiborne, he threw a perfect strike more than 50 yards in the air with a heavy rush bearing down on him. From CSU's 2-yard line, he also threaded a pass between two defenders to Greg Hooks for Utah's first touchdown, and completed passes of 41 yards to Rowley and 26 yards to Haws to set up a first-quarter, 33-yard field goal by Chris Yergensen.
The Rams still might have pushed the game to the wire if not for a couple of ill-timed turnovers. They drove to the 8-yard line in the third quarter only to have Utah's Cedric Crawford recover a fumble by Leonice Brown. Utah's Derrick Stapley recovered a fumble by Hill at the CSU 2, setting up the day's final score, a 1-yard run by Keith Williams with 10 minutes left.
"We're playing well," said McBride. "We've just got to keep it up. We've got San Diego State next."
Bet on it. The gray suit will be there.