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SALT LAKE CITY — In another wild rivalry-game finish, the No. 17 Utah Utes claimed a come-from-behind victory over the visiting BYU Cougars Saturday night, extending their winning streak to eight.
The Cougars started out hot and were the aggressors for much of the first half as they took a 20-0 lead at halftime. Utah, though, would respond in the second half to score 28-unanswered points en route to a 35-27 victory over their rival to close out the regular season.
Utah escaped with a win, but it was far from a shining performance by the Utes. The following are a few takeaways from the game.
Utah has some grit
There’s no question that BYU came into the game with a strong desire to win, as well as the playmaking ability to back it up. The Cougars picked apart Utah’s defense with a solid ground game from Matt Hadley and impressive throws by freshman quarterback Zach Wilson to score three touchdowns in the first half.
BYU would match the offense with a stingy defensive effort to stifle an unimaginative and relatively vanilla Utah offense that appeared to be looking ahead to its Pac-12 Championship matchup against Washington. With a shutout hanging over their heads and only 86 yards of total offense to show for their effort at the half, Utah found itself in a precarious situation.
Utah defense, though, would turn the tide for the Utes as cornerback Julian Blackmon picked off Wilson early in the third quarter to score a 27-yard touchdown. The Cougars would equalize on a 1-yard rushing touchdown by Hadley before Utah managed to score 28 unanswered points for the victory.
While not always pretty, Utah answered for the poor play and rebounded nicely to fight off its rival. In years past, Utah would have folded under pressure and struggled to close the gap, resulting in another disappointing loss. Instead, Utah methodically chipped away at BYU’s lead and showed their resilience — all with a backup quarterback and running backs leading the charge.
As a result, Utah flipped the script on its traditional November schedule and finished the month 3-1, with gutsy performances nonetheless.
Jason Shelley deserves the praise
Ignoring his incredible leap over BYU’s Keenan Ellis for a first down — did I mention how impressive that was? — redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Shelley has done everything he has needed to do to put Utah in a position to succeed. It’s never an easy task to step into the season with hardly any play and take over for a Utah offense that was well on its way to a special season.
Shelley, though, has been poised in his three starts and has put Utah in a position to claim the South Division in the Pac-12 and win a passionate rivalry. Even when Utah’s offense had stalled in the first half, Shelley remained calm, rallied his offensive unit and picked apart BYU’s defense.
Shelley finished the night throwing for 141 yards and one touchdown on 19-of-28 passing — not great, but enough. The play of the game, though, came as Utah held a 1-point lead with just under 2 minutes left to play. Looking to wear down the clock, Shelley instead saw the open grass and ran for a 33-yard rushing touchdown to give Utah its final score and a definitive ending to a wild comeback.
The young quarterback still has much to learn, but he’s exactly the right fit for what Utah needs with Tyler Huntley out with a season-ending shoulder injury. Shelley has proved his mettle and is putting Utah in position to close out a special season.
Thank you, next. pic.twitter.com/yt1mFq7SIh— Nick Dorius (@ndorius19) November 25, 2018
The defense giveth and taketh away
With a Top 20 defense, including a Top 5 rushing defense, Utah was expected to lock down the Cougars — or at least that’s how it was drawn up on paper. BYU was not expected to run the ball well or score much at all. But the Cougars’ freshman quarterback looked like a seasoned vet and picked apart the secondary for big gains.
Utah struggled to contain Wilson, who finished throwing for 204 yards and two touchdowns on 20-of-29 passing, and looked to be an inferior defense. In short, Utah’s defense looked like it was going through the motions and Wilson took advantage of the vulnerability.
But in the second half, the defense came alive and limited much of BYU’s success, starting with a 33-yard pick six by Julian Blackmon for Utah’s first score of the game. At that point, the momentum shifted and Utah was locked in on the game. At halftime, BYU had 247 yards of total offense, but would only manage 110 yards in the second half. In fact, BYU would only manage 51 yards of offense in a pivotal fourth quarter.
The defense didn’t shine, but they locked in on the Cougars in the second half and flipped the momentum in Utah’s favor. To the defense’s credit, they made some significant stops in key situations, including a Chase Hansen stop on fourth-and-one and key sacks by Leki Fotu and Pita Tonga. That’s all you can ask for in a bitter rivalry, even if it wasn’t pretty at times.