SALT LAKE CITY — When Utah and BYU played their annual rivalry game 30 years ago this week, there was little reason to think it wasn’t going to be another Cougar beatdown. Why would it be any different? Under legendary coach LaVell Edwards, BYU had beaten Utah nine straight years and 15 of the past 16 years. The Cougars were 8-2, on their way to their 11th straight bowl appearance, while the Utes were 5-5 and in the midst of their 24th straight bowl-less season.
Yet that 1988 game, played on Nov. 19, turned out to be different. Way different. While it was a coming-out party of sorts for a Cougar freshman quarterback named Ty Detmer and featured a future U.S. congressman kicking a bunch of PATs for BYU, the most striking thing about the game was the absolute domination by the Utah offense and defense.
The Utes not only beat the Cougars, they throttled them to the tune of 57-28. They produced 28 first downs and 581 total yards. Scott Mitchell passed for 384 yards and two touchdowns and set several school records. Eddie Johnson scored four touchdowns. The Utah defense, led by Sean Knox, LaVon Edwards, Eric Jacobsen, and Sam Tausinga helped force eight — eight! — BYU turnovers.
“We just kept scoring and scoring,” said Mitchell, who remembers how the Cougars players couldn’t fathom what was happening.
“They were like,‘ We never lose to Utah.’ I don’t know that they gave it much thought that they were ever going to lose the game. You could even feel it on the field. You could see the frustration in their players and the disbelief.”
We just kept scoring and scoring. – Former Utah QB Scott Mitchell
On the other side, the Cougars were in a state of shock from the Utes’ relentless scoring and ability to create turnovers, as a couple of former Cougars recently acknowledged.
“I still remember walking off the field and having the sense of ‘What just happened?’” said Cougar receiver/returner Alema Harrington. “I had no expectation that (a loss to Utah) would happen in my career. To get hammered like that was so unexpected.”
“Utah beat the crap out of us the whole game,” said former BYU tight end Darren Handley. “At the end of the game it was almost like we were relieved, like, ‘Oh, I’m glad they didn’t score 80 on us.’”
After 10 straight Western Athletic Conference titles from 1976-85, the Cougars were in their third year of finishing out of the top spot after earlier losses at Wyoming and San Diego State. The Cougars were breaking in sophomore quarterback Sean Covey but were still an excellent team with an 8-2 mark heading into Salt Lake. Among their wins was a 47-6 crushing of Texas, a 38-3 win over Utah State and a 65-0 whitewashing of New Mexico.
Meanwhile, Jim Fassel’s crew, after a 2-5 start, had just run off three straight victories, scoring over 40 points in victories over San Diego State, Colorado State and Utah State behind the prolific arm of Mitchell. Two years earlier he had spurned BYU to come north and play for Utah, rather than the school he’d cheered for his whole life, which was just down the road from his hometown of Springville.
“We kind of found a rhythm at the end of the year there,” said Mitchell. “We got it dialed in at the end of the season and we were just playing very confident and just on a roll.”
While the Cougars were solid favorites that day, it wasn’t like they were totally dominant in the years leading up to the game.
After a couple of whippings by Jim McMahon & Co. in 1980 and Steve Young’s crew in 1983, by respective scores of 56-6 and 55-7, the Utes were starting to close the gap.
They only lost by 10 in both 1984 and 1985, by 14 in 1986 and year later the Cougars needed a late field goal to edge the Utes 21-18 in Provo. But not many folks figured on anything but another Cougar victory that year.
It was a crisp, sunny November day, 34 degrees at kickoff as a sellout crowd of 34,216 at Rice Stadium looked on. As was usual in those days, perhaps a quarter to a third of the fans in the stadium was dressed in blue.
As well as the game ended up going, it didn’t start well for the Utes. On the third play of the game, the Utes called a flea-flicker where Eddie Johnson flipped the ball back to Mitchell, whose pass was intercepted by Scott Peterson at the BYU 22. But the play, while unsuccessful, was part of the Utes’ game plan.
“We went into the game, saying, we’re going to take our knockout shots every opportunity we can get them,” said Mitchell. “We were dialing up plays that were home-run-type of plays and it really opened everything up for us later.”
The Cougars proceeded to move right down the field to the Ute 26-yard line but Matt Bellini fumbled and Utah’s Knox recovered. It was the first of the eight turnovers on the day for BYU.
Everything seemed to go wrong, every bounce of the ball. – Former BYU tight end Darren Handley
The Utes moved down the field with a methodical 73-yard drive that included five Mitchell completions and three runs by Johnson, including a 3-yarder for the touchdown.
On the next BYU possession, came turnover No. 2 as Covey was intercepted by Greg Smith at the Ute 35. Although the Utes couldn’t convert, on their next possession they took just two plays to score as Mitchell hit Johnson down the east sideline for a 62-yard gain and on the next play, Johnson ran in from two yards.
Then came the play that may have sealed the Cougars’ fate, as early as it was in the contest. Sam Tausinga, a 5-foot-10, 268-pound defensive lineman who had prepped at South High School, picked off a Covey pass at the line of scrimmage and lumbered 17 yards into the end zone.
Just like that, it was 21-0 Utah with 11:46 left until halftime.
“Everything seemed to go wrong, every bounce of the ball,” said Handley. “We got our share of bounces during the year, but it didn’t seem like we got our fair share of bounces that day.”
The Cougars finally scored with a 12-play, 80-yard drive, capped by a 2-yard run by Bellini, the first of his three touchdowns on the day and the extra point by future Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz, made it 21-7. But just before halftime, the Utes went on a four-minute, 74-yard drive capped by another Johnson touchdown, this one from 2 yards out. A blocked PAT left the halftime score at 27-7 after another Covey fumble deep in Utah territory.
The Cougars’ turnover troubles continued in the second half when, on the second play, Utah’s Knox stepped in front of Chuck Cutler for Covey’s third interception of the afternoon, leading to a 44-yard field goal by Tim Wagstaff.
At this point, the Cougars benched Covey in favor of Detmer, the freshman from Texas, who coolly took the Cougars on a five-play 63-yard drive, hitting Handley with a 22-yard pass for a touchdown.
At this point, it looked like the Cougars might get back into the game behind their future Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, but the Utes scored on their next two drives, another Johnson run and a Mitchell-to-Dennis Smith pass to push the lead to 43-14.
The rout was on.
“You could see their disbelief and it was almost like they were thinking, ‘We’re going to come back and win this game just give us more time,’" said Mitchell. “But we just kept scoring and we knew we had to keep scoring and scoring.”
There was still more than a quarter left to play and each team each team scored on its next two possessions as Bellini scored two more touchdowns and Smith caught another TD pass from Mitchell and Johnson added another TD run.
The 57-28 final score was settled with 10:14 still left to play.
Utah actually had a couple of chances to hit the 60-point mark, but Wagstaff’s 34-yard field-goal attempt came up short and the game ended with the Utes threatening again at the BYU 8-yard line with backup Mike Richmond quarterbacking the Utes.
Ute coach Jim Fassel talked about his team’s game plan afterward, saying, “We were not going to change anything. We were not going to pull back. We were not going to get conservative. We played aggressive football. We did not play uptight.”
For Ute players and fans, who had suffered for much of the past two decades, the victory was extra special.
"I'm telling you, it's going to be fun living in Utah,'' said senior defensive back Greg Smith after the game.
Johnson, who rushed for 112 yards and added another 91 in receiving, called the victory the culmination of his career at Utah. “If I never play a football game again, this will be the best day I've ever had.''
The Utes' season was over but despite their winning record, there was no bowl game waiting for them, back in the day when there were about a third as many bowl games as today. It was just as well, because Mitchell discovered after the game that he had a broken wrist and wouldn’t have been available for another game.
BYU still had a game the following week against Miami, which the Cougars lost, and a Freedom Bowl matchup with Colorado, which they won.
Harrington wonders if his team might have been looking ahead to the game in Miami against Jimmy Johnson’s No. 2-ranked Hurricanes.
“It wasn’t our last game and we were going to play in the Orange Bowl the next week against Miami, another big game,” he said. “But I’m not making excuses, because Scott Mitchell had a phenomenal game.”
I’m not making excuses, because Scott Mitchell had a phenomenal game. – Former BYU receiver/returner Alema Harrington
“Of course players are always going to look down the road and get excited and say, ‘Hey, cool, we get to go to Miami Beach,” said Handley. “But I don’t think we overlooked them. Utah just beat us that day. They played better.”
“As it turned out, neither one went well for us,” added Harrington, recalling that the Cougars were beaten handily in Florida also, by a 41-17 count.
The following year, the Cougars got revenge in a big way with a 70-31 win at Provo, but you could say the 1988 game was really the beginning of the end of the Cougar domination of Utah, which has won 17 of the last 24 meetings between the two schools.
Still, all these years later, the 57-28 Utah victory, for many, is hard to explain.
“It was one of those days where everything clicked,” said Mitchell. “They were a better team, but that day we beat them. We were the better team. It was just a great day.”