SALT LAKE CITY — Turnovers sealed Colorado's fate in more ways than one.
The Buffaloes dug an early hole by coughing up a pair fumbles deep in their own territory. Then, with a chance to drive for a tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Colorado could not hold onto the ball at the most critical time.
Trevor Reilly picked off a pass by Sefo Liufau and returned it to the Buffaloes 21 yard line with 1:54 left to seal a 24-17 victory for Utah on Saturday afternoon. Seeing the Utes snap a five game win streak stung because Colorado felt like it had opened the door for victory.
"It's tough," Buffaloes tight end Scott Fernandez said. "It's not by any means Sefo's fault at all. He was trying to make a play. Their linebacker made a good play. He had been making plays all day."
Facing fourth-and-10 on the previous drive, Liufau completed a 14-yard TD pass to Nelson Spruce. It brought Colorado within a touchdown with 2:30 remaining. The Buffaloes' ensuing onside kick bounded high over the Utah line and out of bounds.
Colorado still forced a Utah punt and got the ball back with 90 yards and 2:01 left to potentially force overtime. Those comeback hopes ended on the next play.
Reilly dropped back from the line and caught the ball. A year of frustration was evident as Reilly tossed the ball high into the south end zone stands before a horde of celebrating teammates greeted him on the sidelines.
"I guess you couldn't ask for more," Reilly said. "I got a pick on the last play in my college career to win the game. Personally, it's nice. More importantly, it sealed the win. That's what I'm excited about."
The final play overshadowed a performance for Liufau that saw him throw for 241 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-46 passing.
"I do feel like we're taking steps in the right direction," Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said. "I really, really do. This could have been one to help on the scoreboard also, but it didn't. So we have to keep moving on from here."
It felt like a little bit of a rerun of how last season's game against the Utes played out. In that contest, Trevor Reilly set up Utah's first touchdown with an interception on the game's first play.
Once again, Colorado ended an opening drive with a turnover. The Buffaloes had lost just 11 fumbles all season, but coughed up the ball at their own 34 when Liufau was sacked by Tenny Palepoi. Utah cashed it in quickly. Adam Schulz completed three passes on the drive to Jake Murphy — the last a 16-yard touchdown that gave the Utes the lead.
Later in the first quarter, Liufau was hit just before he threw by Hunter Dimick. LT Tuipolutu took the ball off a bounce and rumbled to the Colorado 6-yard-line. On the next play, Kelvin York plowed through the middle for six yards and Utah led 14-0.
Utah extended its lead to 21-0 early in the second quarter, scoring on York's run from a yard out after Dres Anderson highlighted an 80-yard drive with a 49-yard dazzling catch.
York finished with a career-best 132 yards and two touchdowns to lead Utah. Schulz, a former walk-on who was pressed into service when starter Travis Wilson was sidelined with an intracranial brain injury three weeks ago, completed 19 of 33 passes for 233 yards for the Utes.
His top targets were Anderson and Jake Murphy. Anderson became the seventh Ute to reach 1,000 receiving yards in a season, the first since David Reed had 1,188 in 2009. He caught seven passes for 94 yards against the Buffs, which put him at 1,002 for the season. Murphy, in his third game back from a broken wrist, had eight catches for 93 yards.
"It feels great to get a win," Anderson said. "We have had a lot of close losses this year and it was great to finally pull one out."
In the third quarter, Liufau finally had time to throw and lofted a pass to Scott Fernandez down the middle of the field for a 34-yard touchdown.
Just when it looked like the Utes would put the game out of reach late in the third quarter, the Buffaloes made a big play. Jake Murphy caught a pass near the goal line and as he reached for the end zone, he lost the ball and Jeffrey Hall returned the fumble for 42 yards. A 15-yard face mask penalty on Schulz tacked on 15 yards.
The ensuing drive stalled at the Utah 2, but Will Oliver kicked a 19-yard field goal to draw Colorado within 21-10 with 12:17 to play.
Andy Phillips countered with a 46-yard field goal for Utah before the Buffs made their late push.
Both teams have struggled since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 and this season-ending contest have been tight all three years with Utah claiming the last two.
After enjoying 10 consecutive seasons ending in bowl games, the Utes have now finished back-to-back campaigns with losing records. Colorado wrapped up its eight consecutive season below .500.