AS THE fans stormed the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the wake of Utah's come-from-behind, 13--10 win over TCU last Thursday night, it wasn't immediately clear whether they were expressing joy or relief. The suddenness of the Utes' victory was exhilarating—a last-minute 80-yard touchdown drive from an offense that up to that point had seemed badly overmatched against the country's second-ranked defense. But also adding to the crowd's rush was the knowledge that a possible berth in the Bowl Championship Series, the Holy Grail for mid-major programs, had just been pulled from the fire.
In a game attended by reps from the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls, undefeated Utah prevailed in what amounted to a BCS play-in for both teams. Those who saw the game—and few did beyond fans in the packed house because it was relegated to the CBS College Sports Network—know that while quarterback Brian Johnson secured the victory when he hit wideout Freddie Brown on a quick nine-yard slant into the end zone with 48 seconds left, the difference was the defense. The Utes had more sacks (four to two) and forced more turnovers (two to zero) than TCU, which is among the best in the nation in both categories. "The bottom line was getting to [TCU quarterback Andy] Dalton and getting into his head," says sophomore defensive end Paul Kruger. "That's big-time when it comes to the end of a game like that." Kruger has shown himself to be hard to rattle. Seriously wounded when he was knifed during a melee outside a Salt Lake City party last January—gashes in his abdomen and side took 50 staples to close—he has recovered to lead the Utes with 15.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. In the third quarter last Thursday he ran down Dalton 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage, a play that took TCU out of field goal range.
After the game Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson spoke ruefully about the two field goals (from 26 and 35 yards) that freshman kicker Ross Evans missed in the fourth quarter. But the fact is, when Johnson and the Utes switched to a no-huddle offense for the final drive with 2:48 remaining, TCU lost its defensive grip. "They turned all night to the sideline to get their calls," says Johnson, who was a cool 7 of 9 for 65 passing yards on the final charge. "When we sped up the tempo, they didn't have time for that and got misaligned on a few plays."
To get its BCS berth, Utah, which moved up from 10th to eighth in the AP poll (TCU dropped from 11th to 15th), still must win out, which means beating Mountain West Conference rivals San Diego State (1--9) and BYU (9--1, No. 16) in the next two weeks. Those wins would keep Utah ahead of ninth-ranked Boise State (9--0), which is also likely to go undefeated but plays in the weaker Western Athletic Conference. "We were 2 1/2-point underdogs at home, and that got under our skin," says Utes coach Kyle Whittingham. "We must be the best-kept secret in the country."
Perhaps not for long.
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ENDGAME After Brown made the winning catch, Utah fans (inset) were perfectly happy.
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