By W.G. Ramirez, Special to the Las Vegas Bowl
Utah scored 35 points in the first 11 minutes of the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, and that’s all the Utes would need.
In fact, it’s all they ended up with in a 35-28 win over BYU, in the 24th edition of the Las Vegas Bowl, on Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium. It was the first meeting of in the heated rivalry known as the Holy Way, outside of the state of Utah.
Utah took advantage of BYU’s disastrous start, scoring its five first-quarter touchdowns on turnovers – including a pair of interceptions by Tevin Carter – then held on for the win as the Cougars clawed their way back in the final three quarters.
“It was a good win for our program,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We started off and played real well the first quarter, very average in the second quarter, then pathetic in the third quarter and half of the fourth quarter, then finished off pretty average. So, you add it all up and evaluate it as a whole, the entire body of work wasn’t bad.
“We ended up with the win, which is all that matters. It’s the only thing that matters.”
Utah struck first in the game, when Joe Williams culminated a six-play drive with a one-yard plunge just four minutes into the game. Then, one play after BYU’s Riley Burt returned the kickoff to the 21-yard-line, BYU freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum was intercepted by Tevin Carter, who raced 28 yards to extend the Utes’ lead.
Carter wasn’t done, however.
Six plays into BYU’s next drive, Carter swiped Mangum’s throw at the 34-yard-line and returned it 33 yards. Williams punched in his second 1-yard TD run and six minutes into the Las Vegas Bowl the Utes were ahead, 21-0.
“On the first (interception), Reggie Porter made a great play on (tipping) the ball and I was just there to make it,” Carter said. “On the second (interception), Jason Fanaika made another tip and I was just there again to make a play. So, all credit goes to my teammates.”
Mangum threw this third interception of the quarter on BYU’s next drive, this time by Dom Hatfield, who took it 46 yards to the house to give Utah a 28-0 lead.
Four turnovers. Four touchdowns.
Make it five, only this time it was BYU’s Squally Canada who coughed up the ball. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, the 2014 Las Vegas Bowl MVP, dictated the five-play drive and finished it with 20-yard scamper up the middle.
Utah, which at one point in the season was 6-0 and ranked No. 3, had 19 interceptions in the regular season, seventh best in the country. The team’s 22 interceptions for the whole season tied for third all-time. The 35 first-quarter pointe set a Las Vegas Bowl record for points in a quarter, as well as a Utah record for most first-quarter points (since 1968). The previous record for points in the first quarter was 21 set by the Utes just last year versus Colorado State. The record for all other quarters is also 21 each.
But BYU wouldn’t go away.
It was Mangum’s poise that brought BYU back, and gave the Cougars a chance to steal the game at the end, as the second half was a different story for the 22-year-old. After completing 14 of 30 for 137 yards, three interceptions and one TD in the first half, Mangum finished 25 of 56 with two touchdowns and three picks while rushing for a score too.
“Tanner is an optimist and that’s a great quality to have at quarterback,” said Bronco Mendenhall, who coached his final game and brought an end to his 11th season as coach of the Cougars. “He thinks he can make any throw and who are we to tell him any different. And even after 35-0, we weren’t going to score points just by running it. Our M.O. has been dropping back and throwing it, and having our receivers go up and make catches and that kind of played out.”
Mangum, who earlier this season led the Cougars to last-minute comebacks against Nebraska and Boise State, never had a chance to do the same against the Utes. After bringing them within a touchdown with 3:23 left, he could only watch on the sideline as the Utes picked up two first downs and ran out the clock. His three interceptions were the most in any Las Vegas Bowl game.
“To Utah’s credit, the defensive front, they were on him very fast and harassed him maybe more than he’s used to,” Mendenhall said. “Nobody was down on him, we were frustrated, but our guys believed in Tanner.”
Mendenhall, who finished his BYU career with a 99-43 record, returned to coach the Cougars one last time before beginning his tenure at Virginia.
BYU ended up with 386 yards to 197 for Utah, which didn’t turn the ball over at all.
“No matter what happens or how much we get down by in anything, this team will fight back no matter what,” BYU defensive end Bronson Kaufusi said. “And that’s something I’m so proud about, is that no matter what happened in that game, everyone had the mentality that we were going to get ourselves back into it.”
Wilson finished 9 for 16 for 71 yards, while Williams had 95 yards on 25 attempts and two touchdowns rushing, and another 22 yards receiving on two receptions.
Carter was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, while Williams and Gionni Paul were selected as the Offensive and Defensive Outperformers of the Game, respectively.
The Utes have won 12 of their last 13 bowl games, and nine of 10 with Whittingham as head coach. BYU, which has played in more Las Vegas Bowls than any other team, fell to 3-3 in the event. Utah’s win came before a sold-out crowd of 42,213, which ranked as the second biggest in Las Vegas Bowl history, behind only the 44,615 that saw BYU defeat Oregon in 2006.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.