SALT LAKE CITY — In a game between bitter rivals with both teams desperate to win, it seemed as if neither actually wanted to. Utah and BYU combined for nine turnovers Saturday as the The Holy War more closely resembled a game of hot potato with both squads struggling with ball control.
Sunia Tauteoli had two interceptions as the Utah defense saved the day in a disjointed 20-19 win over BYU. The Utes have now won six straight in the series for the first time since 1964.
“I felt like I was just doing my job and the ball came to me,” said Tauteoli, who returned an interception 41 yards for a score on the first play of the game. “The game was very intense. As a defensive player, you want those opportunities to land on your shoulder. If we’re called on, we need to perform.”
The Utah defense was routinely put in bad positions as the offense committed six turnovers. Troy Williams had 194 yards passing with one touchdown and three interceptions. Starting running back Joe Williams was benched for a spell after losing a fumble in the first quarter. Utah totaled six fumbles, losing three.
“I told them after the game we dodged a bullet because you’re not going to win many games against quality opponents turning the ball over six times,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It’s just not going to happen.
“My stomach was churning pretty good tonight. I was thinking on the sideline, ‘Am I getting an ulcer?'”
But the Cougars didn’t take advantage.
The Utes’ defense dominated up front and forced three turnovers of its own. BYU’s Taysom Hill threw for 176 yards and had two touchdown runs, but threw three interceptions.
BYU had its best drive of the day when it needed it the most, with just minutes left in the fourth quarter, trailing by seven. Hill moved the team deep in the red zone and ran in a seven-yard touchdown with 18 seconds remaining. First-year coach Kalani Sitake decided to go for the win on a two-point conversion, but a draw up the middle by Hill was stuffed.
“If you had told me they’d turn it over six times and win the game, I would have said you were crazy,” Hill said.
BYU: The BYU defense showed its opening-week effort against Arizona wasn’t a fluke. Utah shot itself in the foot plenty, but the Cougars covered well in the secondary and took advantage of turnover opportunities. The offense, however, remains a work in progress after managing 328 yards and reaching the red zone just twice.
“A lot of great things happened in this game,” Sitake said. “I was really proud of our guys. Just didn’t get the victory. We can’t just squash everything that was positive.”
UTAH: Utah is likely in the market for a new starting running back after Joe Williams lost a fumble on the Utes’ second possession of the game. He also fumbled in the season opener and had ball control issues last year. Utah survived its rival, but the offensive struggles and turnover issues will be a concern as Troy Williams took a step backward.
“My brothers have my back,” Williams said. “It was a tough game out there. It wasn’t my best game, but it happens. It’s football.
“I was just struggling. It was one of those games, honestly. It just wasn’t going my way tonight.”
BYU: The Cougars continue one of the most challenging starts in all of college football with a home game against UCLA. They opened the season with Arizona and Utah.
UTAH: The Utes travel to San Jose State for their final nonconference game of the regular season.
BYU had two safeties ejected on back-to-back plays in the third quarter after being flagged for targeting. Both were questionable calls. Sitake drew and unsportsmanlike conduct flag after Kai Nacua was the first to be ejected, storming past the numbers on the field to berate the officials.
Utah elected to kick a field goal to go up 20-13 with 2:47 left in the game despite having fourth-and-1 from the BYU seven-yard line. Whittingham said he trusted his defense to hold. On the opposite end, Sitake said he planned to go for the two-point conversion from the beginning of the final drive.
SPECIAL GUEST: Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker was on the BYU sideline tossing a football around before the game. Parker is Mormon and was heavily recruited by BYU before playing one season for Duke and being selected No. 2 overall in the 2014 NBA draft.
“It was a little frustrating at first,” Utah defensive lineman Hunter Dimick said. “But it’s like our coaches always say, adversity is going to hit sooner or later. We rallied around Troy and he made some big plays in the end for us. It never got too angry one side or the other, we just kind of banded together.”