By the time the Copper Bowl showdown between Washington State and Utah was finished late Tuesday night, the Utes had lost the game but won new respect. If the Cougars had taken the Utes less than seriously; if they had grumbled about having to play also-rans from the Western Athletic Conference and feared them so little that they enjoyed the night life in Tucson and bagged a curfew, well, the Utes got their attention.
After 1,131 yards and 59 points, after four hours and six minutes of nationally televised theater, the Cougars won 31-28, but only just barely, and they knew it.
``We underestimated you guys,'' guard Josh Dunning told defensive tackle Blaine Berger afterward.
``You guys were a big surprise,'' another WSU player told linebacker Preston Christensen. ``You've got nothing to be ashamed of.''
And so it was true. Utah, the fifth-place team in the WAC, sporting the worst record (now 6-6) of any bowl team in the country, played inspired football against 18th-ranked, 9-3 Washington State.
The Utes spotted the Cougars 21 points in the first quarter, but by the end of the third quarter it was all even, 28-all. In the end, the game was decided by a pair of kickers. WSU's Aaron Price, the coach's son, made a 22-yard attempt with 5:08 remaining. Utah's Chris Yergensen missed a 20-yard attempt with 3:19 remaining - his fourth missed kick of the night (see story this page).
The miss will be the enduring memory of Utah's first bowl appearance in nearly three decades, but that's not fair. The game-winning field goal was set up after safety Singor Mobley recovered a fumble by Henry Lusk deep in Utah territory. The offense also squandered a first-and-goal at the WSU 5-yard line with exactly four minutes to play and the Utes down by three. The Utes put themselves in position to win with one big play. On third-and-seven at the Utah 25-yard line, wide receiver Sean Williams was supposed to run a corner rout, but the cornerback overplayed that zone.
``I broke off my route and went upfield,'' said Williams, who gathered in a pass from Frank Dolce and juked his way to the 5-yard line for a 70-yard gain.
But with victory staring them in the face, a tantalizing 15 feet away, the Utes couldn't score. A short pass to Williams went for one yard. Pierre Jones ran to the two. Then Dolce rolled right and threw a pass out of the end zone. On came Yergensen for the doomed field goal attempt.
``We kept the fans watching football here for 60 minutes, just like (Utah coach Ron McBride) and I planned,'' said WSU coach Mike Price.
It was a fast-paced, high-octane game that turned into a showcase for offensive matchups. Playing in what might be his final collegiate game before turning pro, WSU quarterback Drew Bledsoe completed 30 of 46 passes for 476 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.
``It's easy when you throw short passes to Phillip Bobo and he breaks them,'' he explained, referring to his slotback, who caught seven passes for 212 yards and 2 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Bledsoe's counterpart, Dolce, completed 21 of 40 pases for 316 yards, 2 TDs and no interceptions.
Then there were the running backs. Shaumbe Wright-Fair, the leading rusher in the Pac-10, ran for 123 yards on 27 carries, averaging 4.6 yards per attempt, but Utah's Keith Williams outshined him, rushing for 112 yards on just 13 carries - an 8.6 yard average.
For the record, WSU gained 636 yards - despite 18 penalties worth 136 yards. Utah totaled 495 yards against the 18th-ranked defense in the country. Utah's offensive line, patched together with two reserve players, opened holes for Williams and allowed only sack the entire game.
For its part, the Ute defense allowed only 10 points after the first quarter - three in the second half - against one of the nation's most prolific offenses and quarterbacks.
``I wish we had won so bad it hurts,'' said Christensen. ``But I'm glad it was on national TV so people can see Utah play like that.''
The Utes had done their homework well. They shifted their defense to adjust to WSU's superior speed. Tackle Mike Lewis traded positions with end Dave Chaytors to move the latter's speed outside. They inserted tackle Vince Lobendahn, a former Marine and bodybuilder who hasn't played in nearly three years because of neck and knee injuries, in the lineup to block the middle with his 300 pounds. They also decided to play more man-to-man pass coverage, to allow them to blitz and put more pressure on Bledsoe.
And for the first quarter it all backfired. Bledsoe looked every bit like the quarterback many believe will be the first player chosen in the professional draft if he decides to bypass his senior year. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, he is agile and blessed with the quickest release this side of Dan Marino. He threw for 196 yards in the first quarter alone, driving the Cougars on touchdown drives of 72, 90 and 75 yards.
Play action froze the Utes' man coverage for the game's first big play: a 38-yard pass from Bledsoe to Bobo that set up a three-yard touchdown run by Wright-Fair. Bledsoe beat the Ute blitz for the next two touchdowns. On the second series, Bobo got two steps on safety Sharrieff Shah on a corner route, gathered in the pass and sprinted away for an 87-yard scoring play.
On WSU's third possession, Bledsoe threw a 21-yard completion to Calvin Schexnayder, setting up a three-yard TD run by Wright-Fair. Three possessions, three scores, a 21-zip lead.
The Utes finally awakened in the second quarter. Wideout Greg Hooks, running a deep corner route, made a falling, over-the-shoulder catch for a 38-yard gain - ``He'd been dropping that pass all week in practice,'' said Dolce. Two plays later, Williams ran a short out, made the catch and then turned inside for a 10-yard touchdown.
Then Price made the night's strangest decision. With Bledsoe red hot and fully healthy, the coach benched him in favor of backup Mike Pattinson. A few plays later, Pattinson fumbled the snap and Kim Lambert recovered at midfield. Bledsoe returned, but he was rarely the same the rest of the night.
``That was planned from the beginning of the game,'' said Bledsoe. ``He (Pattinson) is the backup, and he has to get playing time.'' But early the second quarter of a bowl game? Late in the second quarter Keith Williams took a quick snap 25 yards for a touchdown to cut WSU's lead to 21-14.
Then the Utes made a blunder. Bobo ran a post pattern, and his defender, Reggie Alston, slipped. Bobo snagged a quick pass and ran 48 yards for a touchdown with 31 seconds left in the first half, giving WSU a 28-14 halftime lead. It was the Cougars' last touchdown of the night. The Utes adjusted their defense, disguising their coverages to confuse Bledsoe's reads and reigning in their blitz.
``Their defensive coordinator called a whole different game,'' said wideout Calvin Schexnayder. ``We were playing a different defense.''
Early in the third quarter, the Utes got the break they needed: Bledsoe scrambled to his left and threw a pass directly into the hands of Utah's Cedric Crawford at midfield. On the next play, Dolce sidestepped one tackle and threw deep to slotback Lusk. Mobley pushed and leaned on Lusk (Mobley was flagged for pass interference) and actually made the catch, but somehow Lusk took the ball away from him and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. Yergensen's PAT kick was blocked, leaving Utah down by eight, 28-20.
Moments later, the Cougars were forced to punt, and the Utes struck quickly again. Dolce looked off the defense and threw the other way to Pierre Jones for 17. Keith Williams ran 28 yards off tackle to the 8-yard line. Then Jones sliced up the middle, spun out of a tackle and stepped into the end zone. Touchdown. Dolce's PAT pass to tight end Scott Murry tied the score at 28-all with 5:25 left.
The Utes got no closer to victory. A missed field goal, or those final two yards of turf, that was the difference. ``We should be proud of ourselves with the way we played,'' said Dolce. ``But we had a chance to win.''
Said Keith Williams, ``We opened some eyes tonight.''
© 1992 Deseret News Publishing Co.