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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

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.

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.

He made plays with his arm and his feet to lead the Cougars into field goal range for the Jake Oldroyd 21-yarder that made it a two-score game again.

Hall’s third-and-1 run seemingly went for a 66-yard touchdown, but officials ruled he stepped out at the 48.

“I definitely do not think that I stepped out,” Hall said.

No matter.

The third-year sophomore kept the drive alive, a drive that would eventually take six minutes, 14 seconds off the clock.

Hall clearly outplayed Charlie Brewer, the transfer from Baylor who entered the season having thrown for more yards than any active quarterback in college football. Brewer’s fourth-down pass to keep Utah’s last gasp alive sailed high over a receivers’ head, and BYU’s crowd started celebrating.

With the Big 12 announcing it is adding BYU in 2023 and the big, curse-breaking win over the Utes, the second-straight victory over a Pac-12 school, where does the weekend rank in BYU football history?

“I think it is definitely up there,” Hall said. “Absolutely.”

Two years after a since-graduated Utah QB referred to BYU as “poo-poo” in a dominating 30-12 Utah win in rainy Provo in 2019, it was the Utes’ QB who didn’t live up to his press clippings. Brewer was 15 of 26 for 147 yards and a TD, a beautiful strike to Brant Kuithe, but threw an early interception and then failed miserably on Utah’s final possession.

Of course, BYU’s defense had something to do with that, holding the Utes to 340 total yards. Eight penalties for 75 yards was about the only thing BYU did wrong.

“It really came down to our defense,” Hall said. “Just really, really proud of my team.”

And make no mistake about it — this is Hall’s team now. The winner of the three-way QB derby this summer showed that Roderick knew what he was doing when he tabbed Hall — the biggest running threat — over Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover.

Hall rushed eight times for 92 yards, completed 18 of 30 passes for 149 yards and three TDs, for a passer rating of 134.7.

“His running is a weapon that we can use,” Sitake said. “I like what he did. Jaren is starting to come into his own. I like the way he commands the offense.”

The Cougars led 16-7 at halftime, but it probably should have been by more.

Utah turned the ball over on its first two possessions, both in its own territory, and the Cougars got just three points out of them.

BYU also contributed to Utah’s only score in the first half, as a late-hit penalty on Keenan Pili moved the ball to midfield and let Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig open his playbook.

After Brewer’s first pass of the game was caught on the sidelines by Sitake, Chaz Ah You intercepted his second pass and set the Cougars up at the Utah 30.

Lorenzo Fauatea stripped Tavion Thomas on Utah’s next possession, and Isaiah Herron recovered. Oldroyd’s 37-yard field goal gave BYU a 3-0 lead.

BYU put together its best drive against Utah in years at the end of the first quarter, driving 72 yards in 14 plays to take a 10-0 lead on Neil Pau’u’s 4-yard TD catch.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham gambled on fourth-and-2 from the BYU 7 late in the first half, but Micah Bernard was stuffed by Gabe Summers. Whittingham said he was following the analytics instead of taking the field goal, but it came across as a bit of disrespect.

The Cougars took over with 3:14 left in the first half and drove 93 yards for the score, bettering their first TD drive. Hall’s 33-yard pass to Keanu Hill after a scramble put the ball at the 2, and Samson Nacua’s 2-yard TD catch pushed BYU’s lead to nine.

Problem was, Nacua was flagged for celebrating too much, and 2020 Groza Award finalist Oldroyd’s PAT — backed up 15 yards — was wide.

That missed point loomed large as Utah began its comeback, and when Bernard’s tackle-breaking scamper cut the BYU lead to 23-17, a sense of panic seemed to be setting in among the Cougar faithful.

Here we go again, some said.

Not Sitake.

“Some moments there we could have folded, given in,” he said.

But the Cougars didn’t. Not even close. It wasn’t 2018 all over again.