Bryan Rowley was still celebrating his first touchdown in the end zone when Utah State's Efrem Haymore delivered a warning: "We're going to get you, Rowley. We're after you."
True to their word, the Aggies battered, tackled, blocked and otherwise crushed Rowley until he was one bruise from his shoulders to his toes, but it did little good. Rowley, Utah's All-American wide receiver and more, caught three touchdown passes to lead Utah to a badly needed 31-29 victory over Utah State.Even in defeat, the Aggies were a fine team, and they lived up to their considerable preseason expectations. Quarterback Anthony Calvillo threw for 380 yards and 3 touchdowns, two of them covering 66 and 80 yards. Wideout Cotie McMahon caught 12 passes for 207 yards. Running backs Profail Grier and James Dye led a 134-yard rushing attack, and on defense, linebackers Jermaine Younger and Willie Jackson combing for 31 tackles. But the Aggies had one shortcoming, and it cost them the game.
They could not stop a 5-foot-10, 170-pound wide receiver named Bryan Rowley.
USU was leading 10-3 when Rowley caught his first TD pass. With the Aggies double covering Henry Lusk (huh?), Rowley ran straight up the hash marks and gathered in Mike McCoy's 25-yard touchdown pass.
In the third quarter, Utah was trailing 13-10 and knocking on the door at the 10-yard line when Rowley drew man coverage. Mistake No. 2. Rowley gave his defender a post move and broke for the corner. Touchdown.
And finally, with Utah nursing a narrow 24-22 lead in the fourth quarter, Rowley did it again, this time with a little improvisation. With the ball on the 25-yard line, the play called for Rowley to run another streak up the hash marks, but when McCoy began to scramble Rowley hooked underneath the coverage. He took the pass at the 10-yard line, spun out of one tackle and weaved through traffic into the end zone. Touchdown.
It only figured that in the end, after USU had rallied yet again, cutting Utah's lead to 31-28 with 1:43 left on a 66-yard bomb from Calvillo to McMahon, Rowley found another way to come to the rescue. He made a diving recovery of Calvillo's high-hopping onside kick, allowing Utah to run out the clock.
"What can you say about Rowley?" said Utah coach Ron McBride. "He's a complete football player. He makes plays all over the place. He's all right in my book."
Rowley, whose 22 career touchdown catches left him two short of the school record, hardly felt like celebrating as he walked gingerly off the field. "They said they were going to get me, and they did," he said. "I'm sore everywhere. You name it, they hit it."
In all, Rowley caught 7 passes for 93 yards - a far cry from last week's one-catch, three-yard performance against Arizona State. He also returned two punts for 30 yards and took several crushing blocks on special teams.
For Utah, it was just what the house shrink ordered. The Utes had spent the week in self-analysis after last week's 38-0 loss to Arizona State. The Utes tinkered with their defense, held individual player-coach meetings and adjusted their defensive lineup.
But none of that could account for the showing of quarterback McCoy. For the first half he looked much as he did against ASU - tentative, nervous feet, throwing rashly off the back foot, etc. "Then we got into a rhythm," he said. He completed 20 of 38 passes for 261 yards, three TDs, and no INTs.
On the other side of the ball, the Utes were led by a pair of defensive ends, Bronzell Miller and Luther Elliss. Miller, making the first start of his career, had seven tackles and three sacks and forced a fumble. Elliss had seven tackles and one tackle for loss. Safeties Jeff Kirkman and Ed Miller combined for 13 unassisted tackles.
The Aggies took a 3-0 lead on a 24-yard Nathan Morreale field goal, and the Utes answered in kind with a 28-yard Chris Yergensen field goal and a 3-3 tie.
The defenses continued to rule the field until late in the second quarter. Calvillo rolled left from his own 20, stopped and threw downfield to the right where wideout Toney Jenkins had gotten a full two strides behind Kareemy Leary and Ernest Boyd. Jenkins took the ball at the 35 and ran to the end zone for an 80-yard scoring play and a 10-3 lead.
When the Ute offense went three and out, the situation looked serious or the Utes, who had played five quarters to this point without reaching the end zone. But with four minutes left in the half, McCoy, who had been jumpy and impatient under pressure, this time stood tall as the pressure bore down on him and threw a rope to Rowley running a streak up the hash mark for a 25-yard touchdown and a 10-10 tie.
The Aggies weren't done. With two minutes left, Dye broke a short pass for a 35-ayard gain, setting up a 32-yard Morreales field goal.
The Utes picked up where they left off when play resumed. On their opening possession of the second half they moved 63 yards in 10 plays, ending with the scoring pass to Rowley. On their next possession, the Utes did it again. McCoy connected with Lusk for 17 yards and on the next play Jones scooted 13 yards up the middle of the USU defense for a touchdown and a 24-13 lead.
Early in the fourth quarter, Calvillo connected with McMahon on the right sideline for 26 yards to the five-yard line, but the drive stalled and the Aggies had to settle for a 28-yard Morreales field goal and a 24-16 score.
Still, the Utes seemed to have matters well in hand until Jason Jones backed away from a punt on fourth down and was dropped for a 13-yard loss to by Damon Smith at the 37 for a 13-yard loss. Calvillo completed a 20-yard pass to Mike Lee at the three, and on the next play Calvillo froze the linebackers with play action and pass to tight end Aubrey Thompson for the touchdown, cutting Utah's lead to 24-22 with 8:51 left.
When the Utes were forced to punt on four players later, USU was in good shape. But then Shandell Smoot fumbled the punt and Derek Whiddon pounced on it at the USU 27. But then Rowley struck again, scoring his third TD and recovering the onside kick after McMahon's late touchdown.
"That's a darn good team," said McBride. "They're as good as anyone we'll play, except Arizona State."
It was an impressive performance by USU - perhaps the best in recent memory - but USU coach Charlie Weatherbie was hardly satisfied. "This was not a moral victory," he said. "Whoever said that was full of crap."