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Utes savor Y. victory, hope to go bowling

Utah's 41-34 overtime win over BYU was followed by a lengthy postgame celebration at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The Utes took their sweet time making it to the locker room.

The victory, their fourth straight over the Cougars, was one to savor. It secured a winning season and made them bowl eligible.

In the midst of hugs, high-fives and handshakes, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham gathered his team in the locker room for a moment or two of reflection.

Whittingham told the Utes he was proud to be their coach. He also said they were a gutsy group of guys and that he loved them.

Considering the outcome, it was a feel-good trip to Provo. Whittingham called it "the sweetest victory" he'd ever been a part of.

With quarterback Brian Johnson and receiving leader John Madsen unavailable because of injuries, Utah entered the game as heavy underdogs.

"No one expected us to win this game or even compete," said defensive back Eric Weddle, who also saw action at quarterback and punter as Utah threw a few unexpected wrinkles at BYU. "We were the better team tonight."

The Utes racked up 491 yards of total offense and 24 first downs as backup quarterback Brett Ratliff threw four touchdown passes and ran for a score.

"I can't say enough about his performance," Whittingham said. "He was like a seasoned veteran. We did not turn the ball over once on offense."

For the first time this season, Utah had no turnovers. A young team that started just five seniors on offense and three on defense Saturday rose to the occasion in the biggest game of the year.

"I think we've been growing up all year long. I've seen these players mature on a weekly basis," Whittingham said. "I've seen a development in this team and the way they handle adversity."

The latest dealing kept Utah's bowl hopes alive. Of all the possible scenarios, the most likely will send the Utes to San Francisco on Dec. 29 for the Emerald Bowl against a Pac-10 opponent.

After enduring a roller coaster season featuring five setbacks, Utah wound up finishing on a high note. Wide receiver Travis LaTendresse, who caught the game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass from Ratliff in overtime, said there's nothing better than going 4-0 against BYU.

Senior Jesse Boone told reporters it may even top last season's Fiesta Bowl experience.

Though the latter may be a stretch, fact is, the Utes are feeling good about themselves. Whittingham was especially pleased that his team kept answering the bell against BYU. They withstood a rally that erased an 24-3 halftime lead and prevailed in overtime.

"The defense rose up and had enough in the tank to get it done," Whittingham said after Utah's defense limited the Cougars to just four plays in overtime to complete the improbable win.

"Give Utah credit," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. "They played solid."

Contributions were plentiful. Besides Ratliff's performance, which included 240 yards passing and 112 rushing, the Utes' offense had other stars.

Tailback Quinton Ganther rushed for 131 yards, the exact number he needed to reach the 1,000 mark for the season. Utah's receiving corps also got into the act. Four Utes — Brian Hernandez (twice), LaTendresse and tight end Chad Jacobsen — caught touchdown passes.

On the defensive front, safety Casey Evans wound up with a career-high 13 tackles. He also forced and recovered a fumble for the game's lone turnover. Mountain West Conference tackles leader Spencer Toone made eight stops, as did fellow linebacker Joe Jiannoni.

Kicker Dan Beardall also had a game of note. His 35-yard field goal in the second quarter was his 12th consecutive make, establishing a new school record.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com