SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty-five years ago, the Utah football team headed into the season with a lot of similarities to the situation they face going into the upcoming season.
No, there was no pandemic to contend with back in 1995, but there are some things common to what the 2020 Utes are facing, assuming their season gets played.
Among the similarities between the two seasons:
1995 — The Utes were coming off a brilliant season that saw them reach the top ten in the national rankings before faltering with a couple of late losses that put a damper on their season.
2020 — The Utes were ranked as high as No. 5 last season before losing their final two games to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game and to Texas in the Alamo Bowl
1995 — Utah had lost a bunch of starters — 16 in all — and had just a handful of top players returning.
2020 — The Utes lost nearly their entire defense, nine starters, most of whom were drafted by the NFL. They do have more players returning on offense, including four offensive linemen, two tight ends, and a couple of receivers.
1995 — Utah went into the season with a quarterback battle between two untested players, including one in the program and a transfer after losing two-year starter Mike McCoy.
2020 — This year, the Utes are replacing Tyler Huntley, who has actually been the starter for most of the past three years and the race appears to be between redshirt sophomore Cameron Rising and grad transfer Jake Bentley, neither of whom has played a down for the Utes. Senior Drew Lisk is also in the mix, but not expected to beat out the other two.
In that 1995 season, the Utes ended up losing just four games, all by less than a touchdown, with all four losses going down to the final minute. If those games had gone the other way, the Utes could have had their first unbeaten season nine years earlier than their Fiesta Bowl season. On the other hand, they also won a pair of games they had no business winning, thanks to thrilling comebacks in the final minutes. They also enjoyed one of their most decisive wins in modern history against rival BYU in Provo.
“Obviously the close losses are painful because you’re in a position to win and don’t get the job done,” coach Ron McBride said recently about his sixth season as the Ute coach. “That team was a good finishing team, a good fourth-quarter team and played with a lot of grit and toughness.”
McBride had a hard time recalling details of the Utes’ close losses that year, but of course could remember the two amazing comebacks against Fresno State and Air Force when his team overcame double-digit deficits in the final minutes to win.
“Both those games we were in a position to lose and we found a way to win a game at the end,” he said. “I remember the Air Force game, that was ridiculous. We scored two touchdowns in the final minute to win.”
Here’s a look at each game of that memorable season that was almost great:
Sept. 2 — Oregon 27, Utah 20: The Utes had beaten the Ducks twice in the previous three years, including a decisive 34-16 win in Eugene the year before. Playing at home on the new SportGrass turf, the Utes jumped out to a 17-7 lead on a 71-yard run by punter Dan Pulsipher on a broken play and a 97-yard interception return by Brandon Dart. However, the offense struggled under first-year quarterback Brandon Jones, who could only complete 9 of 26 passes for 97 yards. Oregon broke a 20-20 tie with a fourth-quarter touchdown to take the win.
Sept. 9 — Stanford 27, Utah 20: Like the week before at Rice Stadium, the Utes took a three-point halftime lead and fell behind in the fourth quarter and lost by a 27-20 count. This time Mike Fouts replaced starter Jones at quarterback and drove the Utes to the 3-yard line, but was intercepted with 13 seconds left, ending the Utes’ chance for the win.
Sept. 16 — Utah 36, New Mexico 9: A year after the Utes had suffered one of their most disappointing losses ever, a 23-21 defeat at University Stadium to end their unbeaten season, they routed the Lobos in Albuquerque behind the passing of Fouts, whose first start was kept a secret all week. Fouts completed 15 of 21 passes for 285 yards and four touchdowns.
Sept. 23 — Utah 25, Fresno State 21: This was the first of the Utes’ two “miracle” victories in ’95. They trailed 21-10 late in the fourth quarter and looked lifeless after missing a field goal with 6:05 left in the game. After getting the ball back, Fouts led an 80-yard drive in less than two minutes with Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala scoring on a short run with 2:09 left and the Utes tacked on a two-point conversion. Then after the Utes defense held the Bulldogs, Utah got the ball back and Fouts engineered a 66-yard winning drive, hitting Rocky Henry with a 34-yard touchdown pass in the final minute.
Sept. 30 — Utah 34, UTEP 21: The Utes were three-touchdown favorites against the lowly Miners, but had a struggle to escape the Sun Bowl with a victory. The Utes led by just six points with under five minutes to play when they decided to put the ball in the hands of freshman Ma’afala, who after gaining 54 yards on five straight running plays, pranced into the end zone from 14 yards out with 2:18 left for the clinching score.
Oct. 7 — San Diego State 24, Utah 21: The Utes fell out of the driver’s seat in the WAC in a mistake-filled game that included five turnovers as they blew leads of 14-0 in the first quarter and 21-17 in the fourth quarter. Utah got the ball back in the final minute, but a hook-and-ladder play was stopped at the Aztec 30-yard line. The Utes had 29 first downs and 502 total yards, but three interceptions and two fumbles were the difference.
Oct. 14 — Colorado State 19, Utah 14: The Utes lost their fourth home game of the season as turnovers and penalties once again killed their chances for a victory. The Utah offense struggled all day, but the Utes still had a chance for the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, but three offensive chances ended with two punts and a fumble.
Oct. 21 — Utah 22, Air Force 21: Those who thought the Utes’ earlier win over Fresno State was miraculous hadn’t seen anything as their win over the league-leading Falcons topped it. Down 14 points with under a minute to play, the Utes scored 15 points in a 10-second span to take the astonishing victory. They did it with a 17-yard pass to Henry with 38 seconds left, followed by a two-point conversion out of the “Duck” formation. Utah got the ball back on an onside kick and on the first play, Fouts found Kevin Dyson on the left sideline for a 50-yard touchdown pass. Pulsipher’s PAT gave the Utes the one-point win.
Oct. 28 — Utah 40, Utah State 20: Playing their record seventh home game of the season, the result didn’t come down to the final minute for the first time all season. Utah dominated from the start in racing to a 23-0 lead as Ma’afala led the offense with 180 yards rushing, while Jeff Kirkman and Nate Kia led the defensive effort.
Nov. 5 — Utah 30, Wyoming 24: The Utes dominated the game, running twice as many plays and possessing the ball for 45 of the 60 minutes, but had to hang on for dear life. Utah led 30-10 on three Ma’afala touchdowns and three Pulsipher field goals. But the Cowboys scored twice late in the game, on an 83-yard punt return and a 40-yard TD pass after an onside kick. But after getting the ball back in the final minute, the Cowboys couldn’t pull off a victory.
Nov. 19 — Utah 34, BYU 17: After a bye week, Fouts outdueled Steve Sarkisian and kept the Cougars out of a bowl game for the first time in 17 years with the comfortable victory in Provo. Behind the running of Fuamatu-Ma’afala, the Utes took a 27-3 lead into the fourth quarter and only a couple of late Cougar touchdowns made the score respectable. It marked the third straight victory for the Utes and their third straight year of scoring 34 points against the Cougars.
Despite getting a piece of their first league championship in 31 years, the Utes were left home during the bowl season with a 7-4 record.
“That team should have gone to a bowl game,” McBride said. “But that’s the way it goes sometimes. It’s a matter of whether you can make some plays at the end to make a difference. If the ball bounces your way you could be 9-2 or you could be 7-4. That was a real gutsy football team.”