SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah celebrated a win over No. 25 BYU three separate times Saturday, and the Utes ultimately emerged with a 24-21 decision after a bizarre finish.
Games in the series have ended on the final play in four of the past six years. This one came down to BYU getting a little too far behind, 24-7, with less than a minute left in the third quarter, and nearly coming all the way back.
"You get a little tired of being called the gritty quarterback, just being the guy who is always rallying," BYU senior quarterback Riley Nelson said. "We just didn't make enough plays."
Who says playing BYU -- now that the Utes are in the Pac-12 Conference, and its chief rival is independent -- still doesn't bring out a lot of joy and pain? The sixth-largest crowd in Rice-Eccles Stadium history (45,653) nearly cost its team a game, it was so enthusiastic.
With eight seconds to go, Nelson threw an incomplete pass from the Utah 34-yard line, and time apparently expired. The Utah fans stormed the field, but the replay official ruled there was one second remaining.
BYU's Justin Sorensen lined up for a 51-yard field-goal attempt to tie the game. The kick was blocked, but the fans again rushed the field while the ball was still live.
The referee assessed a 15-yard penalty, setting the Cougars up for a 36-yard field-goal attempt by Riley Stephenson, a different kicker. The kick hit the left upright, and the crowd finally got to stay on the field for good with the win secured.
The final miss brought on a storm not seen at the stadium since the two BCS-buster years, 2004 and 2008.
"Great crowd, incredible energy tonight," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
He thought he had the thing won a few times, especially after Nelson's arm was hit on its last play with the offense on the field. The ball fluttered in the air and it was close to being deemed that it drifted long enough for the clock to run out.
It was BYU's third consecutive loss in the series, and the second that came on a missed field goal on the final play.
"I knew it could be a great game, and it was," Utah quarterback Jon Hays said.
Utah seemingly had the game wrapped up when it led 24-7 after three quarters, but BYU rallied for two touchdowns to set up the dramatic finish.
Jamaal Williams scored on a 7-yard run less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, and Nelson threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Kaneakua Friel with less than four minutes remaining. The second score was set up by Utah botching a punt attempt, and the Cougars getting the ball inside the 20-yard line.
The Utes got one first down thanks to a 29-yard pass, but then were forced to punt. BYU took over at its own 8-yard line, but Nelson marched the Cougars into Utah territory. The key play was a 47-yard pass to Cody Hoffman that set up the incompletion on which the crowd first thought the game had ended.
It was eerily similar to a fourth-and-18 pass from Max Hall to Austin Collie in 2007 that set up a dramatic home win for BYU.
On Saturday, Utah outscored BYU 17-0 in the third quarter to snap a first-half tie.
Coleman Petersen put the Utes in front with a 48-yard field goal midway through the third. Moe Lee's 47-yard fumble return gave the Utes a 17-7 lead with two minutes left in the quarter. Nelson, calling an audible amid a lot of Rice Eccles-Stadium noise, never saw the snap coming.
"We have to work on handling crowd noise," Nelson said, "that's for sure. We go to Boise State (on Thursday), and they're going to be loud, too. We have a lot we can get better at it. We see that, for sure."
It got worse for the visitors, much worse, before it got better at the end.
BYU was forced to punt from deep in its territory. A stealth runback was followed immediately by a 39-yard touchdown pass from Hays to Dres Anderson, putting Utah in front by 17 points.
The first half was filled with penalties and punts. Utah scored early, and BYU countered with about five minutes left before halftime to make the score 7-7 at the break. It was a defensive slugfest, with field position ruling the drama.
The teams were a combined 4-for-17 on third-down conversions before halftime.
After BYU forced a punt but then started with the ball at its own 5-yard line, the first snap from scrimmage for the Cougars nearly resulted in a safety.
However, Utah defensive lineman Joe Kruger, who grew up near the BYU campus, was called for a facemask penalty in the back of the end zone that spared the Cougars an early deficit.
Not long after, Utah got a long punt return, then required just two plays to set up a 17-yard touchdown pass from Hays to Westlee Tonga.
Tonga, hauling in his second career reception, made a fancy one-handed catch to help give some confidence to Hays, garnering his first start this year.
Hoffman caught a 10-yard scoring pass from Nelson with less than five minutes left in the half to tie the game at 7.
Nelson completed six of 11 passes for 46 yards in the first half. Hays was 12 of 20 for 108 yards.
There were no turnovers before halftime, but there were seven combined sacks.
NOTES: Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn gave up football earlier this week, as he'll require a fourth shoulder surgery. He was on the sideline supporting his team. ... Whittingham is now 5-3 against his alma mater. ... Utah safety Eric Rowe (hamstring) missed the game, as coaches opted to hold him until the Sept. 22 Pac-12 opener at Arizona State. ... BYU defensive tackle Russell Tialavea blocked a 37-yard field-goal attempt late in the first quarter. The senior also knocked down an extra-point attempt Sept. 8 against Weber State. ... Hoffman has caught a pass in 22 consecutive games. ... Utah and BYU are expected to take a couple of years off from the rivalry after next season. ... Utah running back John White (ankle) did not play, even though he said he would be ready to play earlier in the week.