Nate Soelberg picked off an Alex Smith pass in the second quarter, returning it 60 yards to the Utes' 24-yard line. Two plays later, the Cougars scored to tie the game at 14-14. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
SALT LAKE -- While the past seven games in the 80-year-old-rivalry have been decided by seven points or less, No. 5 Utah improved to 11-0 on the season with a decisive 52-21 victory over BYU on Saturday, handing the Cougars their third straight loss in the in-state rivalry.
"Utah is an outstanding football team," BYU Head Coach Gary Crowton said. "Coach Meyer has done a great job. These guys play hard, they execute well, they're physical, they're confident, they're a very good football team."
While the Utes won the game and moved one step closer to crashing the BCS party, Heisman hopeful Alex Smith may have had the worst game of his career. Credit the BYU defense.
"It probably wasn't my best game, but when it ends like this, I couldn't be happier," said Smith, who had only two interceptions on the season before Saturday. "Winning was all that I wanted. The stats don't really matter."
The Cougars held Smith to just 16-of-24 passing for only 184 yards and had two interceptions. Corner Nate Soelberg picked off Smith in the second quarter, ending Smith's streak of 121 consecutive attempts without an interception. During the third quarter, Spencer White registered the Cougars' second interception of the night. The Cougars held Smith to just 8-of-13 attempts for 73 yards in the second half.
After the Cougars tied the game on a five-yard pass from John Beck to Todd Watkins with 12:13 remaining in the second quarter, Utah's Marty Johnson gave the Utes a seven-point lead on a five-yard carry with 9:28 left in the first half.
Running back Curtis Brown, who finished the night with a team-high 84 yards on 18 carries, evened the score at 14-14 with a six-yard run. Smith found the endzone on a broken play with 1:19 remaining in the second quarter to give Utah a 21-14 halftime lead.
"We were only down by seven [points] at half time, we felt like we could have been a little closer, maybe even 21-21," Beck said. "Coming out at halftime, we knew we were going to have to score some points. This Ute football team scores a lot of points."
Beck was right. Utah posted a 31-7 second-half advantage to outdistance the Cougars.
"The Utah offense is outstanding," BYU Defensive Coordinator Bronco Mendenhall said. "I knew we would have to be exceptional tonight to keep them out of the end zone. I thought for a lot of the game, we were battling and competing. We made too many mistakes, execution wise, to win. We gave up too many big plays. When I knew they were going to run it, and they knew they were going to run the football, they were still able to. That was the difference in the game."
Utah picked up 354 yards rushing, including a game-high 122 yards from junior running back Quinton Ganther. He averaged 11.1 yards per carry, while Steve Savoy added 96 yards and two touchdowns. Marty Johnson picked up 55 yards and a touchdown.
The win gave the Utes their first unbeaten season since 1930, while the loss drops the Cougars to 5-6 on the season and marks the first time BYU has suffered three straight losing seasons in 40 years.
Beck finished the night with 17-of-32 attempts for a game-high 213 yards and two touchdowns, including a 16-yard touchdown to super freshman Austin Collie. Collie, a Freshman All-America and MWC Freshman-of-the-Year candidate finished the night with three receptions for a team leading 74 yards. Junior Todd Watkins had four receptions for 41 yards.
With over 100 receptions between them this season, the dynamic duo of Watkins and Collie marks the first time since 1990 BYU has had two different receivers with 50 or more receptions during the season.
Saturday's loss marks the first time in 40 years the Cougars have posted three straight losing seasons. The last time BYU recorded back-to-back-to-back losing seasons was in 1962, 1963 and 1964. During that stretch the Cougars were a combined 9-20-1 (.317) Over the past three seasons, BYU was a combined 14-21 (.400), including records of 5-7 in 2002, 4-8 in 2003 and 5-6 in 2004.