PROVO — Even though BYU had already clinched the Mountain West Conference championship and was nationally ranked going into the 2006 regular-season finale against Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Cougars had one more mountain to climb — trying to overcome a four-game losing streak to the Utes.
BYU rallied in the fourth quarter and won on an improbable, last-second touchdown pass from quarterback John Beck to tight end Jonny Harline to snap the losing skid with a 33-31 victory.
“That’s what made that game so special — it was the culmination of so many challenges and getting knocked down and having to get back up,” Beck recalled this week. “After not winning for so many years and coming so close the year before, the taste of victory was so close. To finally win really made it special.”
Former Utah coach Ron McBride remembers when he took his team to Provo in 1993 having lost four in a row to BYU. The Utes had dropped 19 of the previous 21 meetings and hadn’t won a game on the Cougars’ home field in 22 years.
When Chris Yergensen’s 55-yard field goal split the uprights with 25 seconds remaining to lift his team to a 34-31 triumph, Utah finally achieved the breakthrough it had been chasing for so long.
“It took a big burden off everybody’s back. To have any respect in the state of Utah, that’s a game you have to win,” McBride said. “It was a defining moment in the history of Utah football. It was a great day for us. We became more credible in the football world. You’ve got people who suffered for so many years, being like the stepchild to BYU. That was really the turning point and the tide changed.”
One of the many fascinating anomalies about the 92-year-old BYU-Utah football rivalry is that it has been marked by long stretches of dominance by one side or the other.
For whatever reason, it’s either feast of famine.
After the football rivalry officially began in 1922, the Cougars didn’t win for the first time until 1942 (there were three ties during that period). Then they had to wait until 1958 to earn their second victory against the Utes. That was followed by a six-game losing streak to Utah.
Then when LaVell Edwards became the head coach at BYU in 1972, it ushered in an era during which the Cougars posted a 22-7 record against the Utes, including a 19-2 run from ’72 until 1992.
Now, the rivalry edge has flipped again. Since 2002, Utah has won 11 of 14 games, including six straight.
If the Utes win Saturday (8:15 p.m., MDT, ESPN2) at LaVell Edwards Stadium, it would mark their first seven-game winning streak against the Cougars since 1951-1957.
Utah’s longest winning streak against BYU is nine games, from 1929-1937. BYU’s longest winning streak against Utah is also nine games, from 1979-1987.
Despite all of the dramatic endings over the years, it’s not often that the two teams take turns winning. The exception was from 1995-2000 when the outcome went back and forth for six consecutive seasons — the longest such stretch in the rivalry. Inexplicably, the road team won each of those games.
Why is it that in this rivalry one side tends to dominate for years?
“I think most BYU fans would be curious to know what the real answer is. Everybody’s wondering, ‘Why can’t we beat these guys?’ We’ve had a few close ones but we end up on the wrong side,” Beck said. “I think from a sports psychology standpoint, one of the best ways to gain confidence is past experience. If you’re on the side that recently has been winning, you’re probably the side that can use past experience. When you’re on the side that doesn’t have that, it seems like an uphill climb.”
McBride’s explanation for the Utes’ recent domination?
“Utah has a good base of talent,” he said. “Utah got into the Pac-12 and BYU doesn’t have a league affiliation. Utah is able to attract a better caliber of player because being in the Pac-12 helps them. Right now, Utah has the upper hand because overall they have better players and a better situation.”
Since BYU went independent and Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes are 5-0 against the Cougars.
McBride added that the lopsided nature of the rivalry has a lot to do with the state of the programs.
“In 19 of 21 years, BYU was dominant because they had a better football team,” he said. “Utah could never get the consistency to catch up with them because of changes of coaches and changes in philosophies.”
While BYU hasn’t beaten Utah since 2009, Beck believes that lessons can be learned from losses that can help produce wins later. He recalls throwing an incomplete pass in the end zone on the final play of an overtime loss to the Utes in Provo in 2005.
“I felt like we should have won that game,” he said. “I spent a lot of time dissecting that play trying to figure out what I could do differently so if I were ever in that situation again, I would be prepared for it. We took a lot of successes from a game like that. Just because it didn’t end up with us winning doesn’t mean there weren’t successes that we could apply moving forward.”
Last season, BYU fell to Utah 20-19 after the Cougars’ potential game-winning two-point conversion failed near the end of the game.
“It was one point away from winning,” Beck said. “If we get that two-point conversion, none of the conversations we’re having are happening right now. Because of one play. There are guys on the team that can take the successes from that game.”
What about Saturday’s game, featuring a BYU team coming off of one of its worst offensive performances in decades — a 27-0 thumping at the hands of Louisiana State?
“There could be tons of people who are throwing their hands in the air saying, ‘Look what happened last week. We don’t stand a chance,’” Beck said. “Who cares? It wouldn’t surprise me to see BYU come out of the gate swinging and having things go their way. If BYU walks onto the field feeling that they can win this thing, then their chances are really good.”
For McBride, there’s not much doubt about who will win the 2017 version of the Rivalry Game.
“Utah is a more talented football team. Utah should win the game hands down. BYU is going to have to play great defense, have a great kicking game and establish a running game to help their passing game,” he said. “Right now, I don’t know where that comes from. I struggle seeing BYU beat Utah. I could be wrong because it’s a rivalry game and anything can happen. But if you’re realistic, it’s going to be tough for BYU to win.”
Certainly, it’s the Utes’ turn to control the Rivalry Game. Question is, how long will this iteration of their winning streak against the Cougars last?