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BYU shows it learned lessons from past rivalry games in holding off Utah, finally

Cougars denied Utes a record 10th-straight victory in the series by winning in the trenches, taking care of the football

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Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Keanu Hill (1) celebrates a long catch setting up a Cougar score.

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Keanu Hill (1) celebrates a long catch setting up a Cougar score as BYU and Utah play an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Three years after coughing up a 20-point lead in the second half to rival Utah, the BYU Cougars were seemingly heading down a similar path Saturday night on a wild, sometimes rainy night in Provo.

But Kalani Sitake has said he’s all about learning from past mistakes, and on a historic night at LaVell Edwards Stadium, the Cougars’ head coach applied those lessons magnificently.

This time, BYU stayed aggressive on both sides of the ball, displayed the depth that Sitake has promised he was building, slowly but surely, and held off the Utes 26-17 to snap their biggest rival’s nine-game winning streak in the series.

Utah’s attempt to set the record for most consecutive wins in the heated rivalry came up a game short, buried in a sea of turnovers and by the magnificent quarterbacking of BYU third-year sophomore Jaren Hall.

“I’m just really happy, guys,” Sitake said long after the final horn sounded.

“Some moments there we could have folded, given in.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake

BYU fans stormed the field and partied well into the night, just as they did the last time the Cougars beat Utah, in 2009. It was BYU’s largest margin of victory over Utah since the Cotton Bowl year, 1996, when the Cougars won 37-17.

“It was nice to get the win for the fans,” Sitake said. “Our fans gave us a huge sense of urgency that they didn’t want to (lose) to Utah again.”

There were all kinds of heroes for the Cougars, but Hall deserves the game ball for engineering the win like another quarterback with the last name of Hall, Max, who just happened to run out one of the alumni flags. Hall’s TD toss to Andrew George won the 2009 rivalry game in overtime, 26-23.

“It was priceless,” Jaren Hall said, describing the scene in the locker room after the Cougars finally got off the field as “just smiles and dancing, and just what you do after a game. You just relish the moment.”

And the Cougars will be able to relish this one for a long time: BYU and Utah aren’t scheduled to meet again until 2024. That’s three years of bragging rights, if you are scoring at home.

“It is a huge win for our program — just momentum-building,” Hall said.

Utah never led. The team picked by some to win the Pac-12 South gave up 219 rushing yards, the most it has given up on the ground since the Alamo Bowl in 2019.

Simply put, BYU beat Utah at its own game. The Cougars ran 25 more plays (76-51) and controlled the ball for nearly 11 more minutes.

“That we had more plays than Utah is a good sign for us,” Sitake said.

Perhaps the most telling statistic was third-down conversions. The Cougars were 11 of 19 on third down, while Utah was 2 of 9 on third down and a costly 0 for 2 on fourth down.

Sitake credited offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick and defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki for concocting the “perfect game plans” to upset the No. 21 Utes. He said another game ball should go to the fans.

“They made a difference,” he said.

The game appeared to be turning a couple plays after Hall’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Gunner Romney gave the Cougars a 23-7 lead with 38 seconds left in the third quarter. At that point, some fans probably thought that BYU would cruise to the win. Those who witnessed that 35-27 rivalry loss in 2018 after the Cougars had a 27-7 lead late in the third quarter weren’t among them.

Utah fought back.

Micah Bernard ripped off a 50-yard run after he was seemingly stopped in the backfield, and although the Utes had to settle for a field goal — a 47-yarder — after the big run, the FG made it a two-score game and gave the visitors hope.

BYU went three and out on its next possession, and it took Utah just five plays to score a TD after DeVaughn Vele’s 27-yard punt return.

Bernard did the honors, making a tackle-busting 22-yard TD run against a tiring BYU defense to cut the Cougars’ lead to 23-17.

A brief rainstorm accompanied Utah’s comeback.

But that’s when Hall vaulted himself into rivalry lore.