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U. retains ownership of Cougars' home field

It is official, as if it wasn't clear before Utah's thrilling 41-34 overtime win over BYU in LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday.

Utah football should open a real estate office down here, make it an extension office, come down in the summer and have players sun themselves on the lawn, sell hot dogs, bring family and friends, get free tickets to the Stadium of Fire for the Fourth of July, hang out in the locker room of their choice, even burn that drum and feather somewhere on the steel or end zones.

Utah has taken over the stadium that bears the name of legendary LaVell. After Saturday's wire-to-wire lead and subsequent victory, the Utes have won six of the last seven times they've played in Provo.

Maybe it's playing before the biggest crowd they see all season. Maybe it's that they've got more gas in their engine crossing the Point of the Mountain, or maybe they simply know the secret code word or hold a pass key that somebody's misplaced. But it's apparent Utah has it and the Cougars don't in rivalry parties here and it doesn't matter who is favored these days.

The last time BYU beat Utah here was 2001, when Luke Staley took a Brandon Doman pitch and raced in for the winning touchdown. And even then, the Cougars were behind and almost lost.

Last summer, new head coach Bronco Mendenhall had his team members come out and lie down on the stadium lawn, close their eyes and imagine triumphant moments of yore, a mental exercise to get the 2005 Cougars back to the tradition and glory and visualize its importance.

The Utes slapped around that vision Saturday when Utah, once again and as if on cue, came into BYU's house and punked the Cougars. Underdogs? Not quite. This was a doggie fire plug stop for Kyle Whittingham's crew.

After BYU's overtime loss to end the regular season, the Cougars now wait for a bowl bid which should come by Sunday afternoon, most likely the Las Vegas Bowl.

But for all Mendenhall's emphasis on winning at home, the Utes poked a finger in that pie. BYU ended 2005 3-3 at home, a .500 effort, and one of those victories came over Division IAA Eastern Illinois. BYU did better on the road, going 3-2 with losses at Notre Dame and San Diego State.

Go figure.

On Saturday, Mendenhall said he learned something about his team in the Utah loss and is anxious to work to have the Cougars improve. "It came down to them making one more play than we did," he said.

The Cougars fell behind 24-3 to a fired-up Ute team. Key in Utah's race ahead was the play of mystery quarterback Brett Ratliff, who still was a mystery to the Cougars on third-and-long runs after the game was over. BYU would have fared better with starter Brian Johnson because they might have got him to fumble. Ratliff didn't turn the ball over once.

It was Utah's show.

Utah paraded out Eric Weddle, using him for about everything imaginable. Whittingham should run Weddle for governor, Congress, the White House and ambassador to France.

BYU mismanaged adversity from the start. As senior receiver Todd Watkins put it, BYU got caught up in trash talking and the emotion of the rivalry and didn't play Cougar ball until the second half — a 31-point explosion that fell short.

"There was a lot of extracurricular activity, like trash talking. That's not our game and we got sucked into playing the way Utah does," Watkins said.

Actually, BYU didn't play the way Utah did.

BYU didn't lose the game on an overtime play made or not made. The Cougars lost to Utah on Saturday in the opening minutes of the game when the Utes took the momentum and got a head start.

"Little things made a big difference," BYU quarterback John Beck said.

It showed in how the Cougars reacted to Ratliff early. They didn't.

It showed in how the Cougars reacted to Curtis Brown dropping an almost sure touchdown pass to open BYU's first drive. They didn't.

It showed when offensive tackle Eddie Keele got three penalties for 40 yards in the first quarter, a personal foul and two false starts.

It showed in how the Cougars reacted to a strange offensive interference call on Matt Allen and then a no-call on Allen's attempt at another pass when Eugene Oates appeared to push him in the back with the ball in the air. They didn't.

It showed in how Utah made itself over from the club that lost to New Mexico on Senior Day a week ago — and how BYU didn't operate at all like it did against Wyoming.

Utah had BYU in a brain vise during warmups.

Physically, Utah beat BYU in the trenches and then made more plays with the little guys. They also won the mental game, as Watkins testified.

"We played outside our keel," Mendenhall said. "We played outside our assignments, our technique and our emotions. In the second half, we played better than I imagined we could play. But it's my job to get them ready."

Better luck in Salt Lake City, coach.

Cuz, here, the guys in red have BYU's number, combination, key, coat and the hanger it hangs on.


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com