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Utah Survives Frenetic BYU Comeback in Las Vegas Bowl

David Dennis/Icon Sportswire

Selection Sunday is a term that, realistically, exactly zero people use when referring to college football.

It’s when the bowl games are announced and, outside of the top 10 or so bowls, few really care about them. Bowls are something to have on in the background while online shopping or wrapping Christmas presents, or brewing up some eggnog.

Except for Utah vs. BYU. The Holy War in Sin City. Tickets sold out in less than a day for the Las Vegas Bowl.

The game appeared over in less than 10 minutes of football time, or roughly 45 minutes of real-time. You couldn’t have been blamed if you flipped to Appalachian State vs. Ohio, though you would have regretted missing what became a thrilling, hair-raising, near-comeback for BYU that fell short, 35-28.

If you only stuck around for the first quarter, you would have justifiably agreed that the hype leading up to the game proved more interesting than the game itself. BYU players ran their mouths. Even the basketball teams got involved, trading punches and suspensions; which led to the Utah football players running their mouths at what was supposed to be a welcome reception of pleasantries.

It devolved into a dance off gone wrong, with Utes accusing the Cougars of being dirty. Punter Tom Hackett, one of the more affable players in college football and perhaps the best punter in the history of college football, called them bastards (Note: He’s Australian, and the term is not quite as derogatory as it is here).

It was unusual hype for a bowl game. And, at first glimpse, the game had no chance of living up to the bill.

With 6 minutes, 26 seconds left in the second quarter, Utah had gained 74 yards of total offense. The Utes were up 35-0.

How, you might ask, is that even possible?

Quite simple, really.

BYU ran 15 plays in its first five drives. Five of those 15 plays resulted in the ball going to the wrong team.

There was a fumble, an interception that became seven points for the other, another interception that became seven points just one play later, one more pick-six—because, at that point, why not—and a fumble that Utah flipped into another seven points.

If you were late tuning into the game – an understandable offense, it is bowl season, after all – and missed that hellacious string of what most in the football world call “possessions,” SBnation.com provided a cutup of each turnover.

What went unnoticed throughout this calamity was that BYU’s defense wasn’t even playing all that bad.

On the rare occasion that Utah’s offense began the possession on its own side of the field, it punted. Even the one that started on the 50 was a three-and-out of five total yards. Had BYU’s offense not been so spectacularly awful, this would have been an excellent football game – well, maybe not excellent, but at least close…or relevant.

This was of critical importance in the second half.

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall evidently briefed his offense that the objective of football is, in fact, to score on the other team and not hand it to them. The Cougars scored on two consecutive possessions, and they didn’t just score – they looked like a capable football team with a functioning offense. Meanwhile, Utah was busy being Utah. Its best offensive play of the second half was a fake punt that went for a first down. The Utes then punted for real three plays later.

And then, suddenly, BYU was scoring on a fourth-and-five. The Cardiac Cougars were down just two scores.

Suddenly Utah was going for it on fourth down – and coming up short.

Suddenly BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum did it again, running in from four yards.

Suddenly it was a one-score game, and ostensibly everyone watching was recalling Mangum’s curious penchant for Hail Mary’s to win football games.

And then it wasn’t.

Utah scraped up just enough offense to pick up three first downs and run out the clock, squeaking out with a 35-28 victory that could not feel any more like a loss. It’s actually a perfect summation of the Utes’ season, at once dominant and enigmatic and downright vexing.

In hindsight, we shouldn’t have expected any less. It was the Holy War, after all. A Holy War in Sin City.

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