PROVO -- BYU coach LaVell Edwards sensed his team might be in trouble against Utah just after the first quarter ended.
Four times in that opening period the Cougar offense marched into Ute territory, including first-and-goal from the 4, but had only a 3-0 lead to show for it."I remember thinking that could very well come back to haunt us," Edwards said.
He was right. In fact, the No. 19-ranked Cougars squandered a score of opportunities throughout their 20-17 loss to the Utes.
Two errant field goals. Dropped passes. A blown coverage that resulted in a Utah touchdown. Three interceptions.
On the Cougars' final offensive play of the game -- they had third down and 10 at midfield and were driving to set up a potential game-tying field goal -- receiver Cliff Doman lined up on the wrong side of the formation. Quarterback Kevin Feterik tried to remedy the problem but was unable to tell Jonathan Pittman to run a different route.
Feterik ended up throwing a pass intended for Pittman that resulted in an interception by Utah's Andre Dyson with less than one minute remaining. "Everyone was confused," Feterik said of the play.
"There were a lot of missed assignments out there. I don't know why. It's the eleventh week of the season."
Despite the loss, which ruined their shot at winning the inaugural Mountain West Conference title outright, the Cougars believe there will be a twelfth week of the season in their future. Both the Liberty Bowl (Dec. 31) and the Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 18) remain a possibility.
"We draw a lot of fans, and we're a pretty good football team. We've just been struggling," said senior linebacker Rob Morris. "I definitely want the shot to go out on a winning note. You hate to go out with a loss to your rival."
As recently as seven days ago, the Cougars were in firm control of their own destiny. But after humiliating defeats to Wyoming and Utah, they have relinquished that privilege. Yes, they can say they are conference co-champs, but that accomplishment rings hollow right now.
"I'm extremely disappointed," Feterik said. "We had two weeks to win the championship (outright), and we didn't."
As was the case against Wyoming, the Cougars' ground game was almost nonexistent. Playing without leading rusher Luke Staley for the second straight week, BYU gained 20 yards on 28 attempts.
"You simply have to run the football," Edwards said. "We've beaten (Utah) in the past by running the ball. We would have wrapped (the championship) up last week if we could have run the football."
Feterik closed out his career at Cougar Stadium with 309 yards, but he completed only 22 of 52 passes. The Utes were able to apply good pressure on Feterik (sacking him four times for minus 34 yards) by rushing three men while blanketing the Cougar receivers with eight men.
"Everyone was covered, and they still had a good pass rush," Feterik said. "It was tough today. I felt like everyone double covered."
About one-fourth of Feterik's passing yardage came on a 77-yard touchdown strike to Margin Hooks, who finished with seven catches for 139 yards. That play lifted BYU to a 10-6 advantage in the third quarter. But that lead was short-lived.
On the Utes' ensuing series, quarterback T.D. Croshaw connected with a wide-open Cliff Russell for a 70-yard score to put the Utes up 13-10.
Morris called the play a miscommunication in the defensive backfield. The Cougars switched to new coverage coaches put in this week, and cornerback Brian Gray let Russell go by him to cover another receiver. That left Russell all alone in the middle of the field.
"It cost us," Gray said. "Our defense didn't play as well as we should have. We made mental mistakes that caused big plays."
Not even kicker Owen Pochman was immune from miscues. After booting a field goal to give BYU a 3-0 advantage (making him the most prolific scorer in Cougar history and extending his school record for consecutive field goals to 15), he had a 55-yard attempt blocked in the first quarter. Then, with BYU trailing 20-10 in the fourth quarter, Pochman lined up to try a 38-yarder. The ball sailed wide right.
"It just faded to the outside," he said. "It was my fault."
Pochman's miss loomed even larger after a Cougar touchdown with 2:40 left by Ben Horton made the score 20-17.
The BYU defense, which atoned for last week's poor showing by limiting Utah running back Mike Anderson to 80 yards on 28 carries, gave the offense one last opportunity just under two minutes remaining. But similar to the way the rest of the day went, it went awry on that game-ending interception. All the Cougars can do now is wait for a bowl bid. And wonder about what might have been.