While it may rank right up there with the greatest wins in school history, Utah's 16-13 victory over Arizona in Tuesday night's Freedom Bowl will certainly top the list as the unlikeliest win ever.
The Utes defeated the Wildcats by scoring touchdowns on two 5-yard drives, getting just five first downs in the entire game and producing only 75 yards of total offense. They watched the Wildcats drop three sure touchdown catches - two in a row on a crucial fourth-quarter series. And in the final minutes of the game, the Utes needed the heroics of pair of freshmen, from Utah no less, to pull out the unbelievable victory.The bowl triumph, 30 years after their last bowl win, improved the Utes' record to 10-2, giving them a 10-victory season for the first time in school history. It also gives them a chance of finishing in the Top Ten, depending how the other bowl games work out. Regardless, they'll finish with their highest ranking ever.
"This is as big as it comes," said Utah coach Ron McBride, clutching one of the game balls firmly in his right arm. "I've been through a lot of highs and lows in this profession. This is history - it's never been done at Utah."
The Utes did it, despite an offense, ranked 11th in the nation, that was made to look anemic by the Wildcats' vaunted Desert Swarm defense.
What the Utes got, however, was an outstanding performance by its own defense, which limited Arizona to just 184 total yards, some huge plays by their special teams and those two heroic plays by the freshmen from Utah.
The first big play was turned in by Cal Beck, who played for Cottonwood High last year and was only recruited to Utah at the last minute.
After Arizona had taken a safety rather that risk a punt from their end zone, the Wildcats kicked off from their own 20. Beck, a two-time state track champion, returned the kick 72 yards to the Arizona 5.
Then it was Kevin Dyson's turn. On 4th down, Mike McCoy made a desperation heave that was snagged one-handed by the former Clearfield High star for the winning touchdown.
"I knew if we could stay close, we could win it in the fourth quarter," said McBride. That the Utes were still in the game going into the fourth quarter was remarkable, considering they had 39 yards of total offense at the time.
After the two teams traded first-half touchdowns and went scoreless in the third quarter, Arizona finally broke through with a 44-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to make it 10-7.
An interception by Sean Harris and a personal foul penalty on Utah set up the Wildcats' next score. But it turned out to be just three points on another Steve McLaughlin field goal, this one from 20 yards.
But the Wildcats had two big chances to score a touchdown and blew them both. First tight end Tim Thomas dropped a wide-open pass in the end zone. Then wide receiver Lamar Lovett dropped a pass all alone in the end zone.
"Who knows why they dropped those balls," said McBride. "The ball bounces funny ways sometimes."
Luther Elliss laughed when he said, "I think God was blessing us on those plays."
After the reprieve, the Utes felt like they were destined to win, since they were down just 13-7 with 8:05 left. All they needed was a touchdown and an extra point.
They moved to midfield and were forced to punt. Jason Jones got off a beauty that was downed at the 1-yard line. When the Ute defense held, Arizona decided to take the safety, rather than risk a punt.
After getting stuffed all night by the Desert Swarm defense, the Utes needed something out of the ordinary - such as a long kickoff return - to have any chance at victory.
Beck had done it against BYU, setting up the winning touchdown with a 70-yard return and he was ready to do it again.
"As we were waiting for the kickoff, I turned to Clarence Lawson and said, `Do you remember when I told you before the BYU return that this was the biggest return of our lives. Well I lied. This one is the biggest,' " said Beck.
The ball was fielded by Beck at the 23 and the speedster split the Arizona defense before heading to the left sideline, finally being pulled down at the 5-yard line.
On first down, McCoy couldn't find anyone and threw the ball into the stands. On second down, the pass was tipped and almost intercepted. On third down, McCoy threw to the left corner, but Curtis Marsh never got close to it.
That left a fourth-down pass play designed to go to tight end Rick Tucker, but he was covered. So McCoy rolled out to the right where he was grabbed by noseguard Chuck Osborne. McCoy appeared to be halfway to the ground when he heaved up a sidearm prayer toward the end zone.
Dyson had gone to the front corner of the end zone, covered well by linebacker Charlie Camp. But he broke back toward the middle when he saw McCoy in trouble and made his one-handed grab.
"To be honest, I don't know how I did it. I was fortunate to get it off and Kevin made a great play," said McCoy.
After that the Utah defense came through again when Jeff Kaufusi hit White and forced a fumble and Henry Kaufusi recovered at the Utah 31.
With 2:37 left, Utah still needed a first down to run out the clock and they got it when on 4th and 1, McCoy faked up the middle, rolled out and found Tucker for a 10-yard gain.
All that was left was the celebrating as McBride got his obligatory Gatorade dousing and a lift to the shoulders of his players. Then Ute fans, who accounted for nearly half of the small 27,477 crowd at Anaheim Stadium, stormed the field and mobbed the Ute players.
The finish was very similar to the BYU game a month earlier. The Utes trailed by four late in that game when Beck returned a kickoff more than 70 yards to set up a winning pass by McCoy to give the Utes a 3-point victory, after which the fans stormed the field.
Early in the contest, it looked like no one would ever score as the teams traded punts on their first six combined possessions.
Then Arizona broke through with a 23-yard touchdown pass from Dan White to Ontiwaun Carter. The ball appeared to be intercepted by Utah's Edwin Garrette, but as he was coming down with it, Carter swiped it away as he fell into the end zone.
The Utes' first break came early in the second quarter after an Arizona interception at the 1-yard line.
On the first play, White fumbled on a quarterback sneak with Utah's Ernest Boyd recovering at the 5-yard line. Then after a loss, Charlie Brown broke a pair of tackles on his way to a 6-yard touchdown run.
"The linebacker shot the gap and had my leg. But as I broke it I saw the defense flowing the other way and I just cut it back," said Brown.
For the game, Brown finished with just 44 yards rushing, which matched the total Carter had on three more attempts.
The Wildcats had come into the game as the No. 2 defensive rushing team in the nation and they showed why as they held Utah to six net yards on the ground.
"They were quick, the best defense we've played by far," said Ute tackle Anthony Brown. "But when stuff had to happen, it happened for us."
Like the dropped Arizona passes, the Beck runback, the McCoy throw and the Dyson catch.
After the game, Beck was presented with the Most Valuable Player trophy, which fulfilled a dream he recently had.
"I had a dream two weeks ago that I was standing on a podium holding a trophy with all my family in front of me," said Beck.
After the game, Beck was presented with the Freedom Bowl MVP award, up on a platform as his family and several Ute fans looked on.
For Beck, Ute players, coaches and fans it was a night they'll never forget.