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November 29, 2010

In Jake We Trust

In a game featuring seven turnovers, a few controversial calls (both officiating and play selection), pre- and post-game fisticuffs, a last second outcome, a dual Ute quarterback benching, a game winning Utah drive which included a punt and an interception - now that's the way to move the ball when you're struggling on offense!- the ever reliable foolish fan shenanigans, and of course the blocked kick, one play in particular has replayed itself in my mind over and over again.

After Utah took the lead for the first time with four minutes remaining, the  BYU offense was levied with the task of making a final minute game winning drive. Impeding them in their quest was a fired up Utah defense, a rabid home crowd, and perhaps the biggest obstacle of all, BYU's inexperience. The Cougar offense would have to perform a miracle comeback with a 19-year old quarterback, not to mention freshman at the running back, wide receiver and tight end positions. If ever there were a time for the Cougar offense to lose their composure, this was it. The situation looked even worse following BYU's first two plays of the series: a pair of hand offs which removed one minute from the game clock and netted a total of one yard. Enter the play I cannot seem to forget.

Third and nine, ball on BYU's own 21 yard line. Three minutes to play. Rice-Eccles stadium erupting. Sixty yards away from field goal range. Sensing the desperation of BYU's situation, a Ute lineman stood up from his stance and pointed directly at freshman quarterback Jake Heaps. He held his arm out for one, two seconds, then ran his fist across his throat, pulling a Babe Ruth and predicting before the play began that Heaps, and BYU as a team, were dead.

From my couch at home I had to agree with the Ute lineman. How could I expect a freshman quarterback to overthrow the crowd noise, the momentum, the pressure, the adrenalin-filled defenders and complete the first down?

A side note: I hope these all white uniforms become abolished

Boy was I ever wrong. Heaps dropped back, looked off a pair of receivers, and bulleted a 22-yard pass to Devin Mahina. Chains moved. Crowd silenced. Babe Ruth denied. BYU alive.

Heaps wasn't done. He completed three more passes on the drive, looking eerily like John Beck did four years ago in a similar game winning march against Utah. "It's hard to throw the ball when everyone know you have to throw it," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham, yet that was when Heaps was at his best, eventually moving the ball to the 28 yard line of Utah. From there, the team decided to settle for the ugly best friend (a field goal) instead of pursuing the beautiful cheerleader (a touchdown) and consequently lost the game. Ironically BYU may have been in better shape had Ute kicker Joe Phillips made a field goal he missed earlier in the game. Trailing by four rather than one would have forced BYU to go for the endzone, an option that seemed more attractive than attempting a long field goal in a game in which every conceivable break had gone against the Y.

Oh well.

The point I want to make is not what BYU could have or should have done. What I want to write about is the thing that has buoyed my spirits in the midst of this brutal loss - the play of Jake Heaps. Turns out that I - like the Ute lineman did that play, like the BYU coaching staff did all season - underestimated young Jake Heaps. The kid looked like a veteran in avoiding sacks, scrambling for quality yardage on one play and throwing accurate passes throughout the entire game. By any account he thoroughly outplayed the Utes two attempts at quarterback, and looked more calm and prepared than Max Hall had in his three cracks against the U (and keep in mind that line is written by a person who adores Max Hall).

Oh yeah, and did I mention he did it with a popped rib?

From Gordon Monson for the Salt Lake Tribune: "Jake Heaps winced as he slowly walked into the cold, dark night outside Rice-Eccles Stadium after the BYU-Utah game on Saturday, surrounded by family members and pained in every which way a quarterback can hurt. In the first quarter, he popped out a rib when a defender belly-flopped on him after a scramble. The rib was popped back in by trainers at halftime, and the freshman played on."

Oh yeah, and did I mention he did it without his best receiver?

Heaps in fact played the whole season without the receiver who was most accustomed to his velocity (injured freshman Ross Apo) and BYU paid a dear price for it all year long with numerous dropped passes (none perhpas bigger than Luke Ashworth's drop against the U which contributed to a Utah touchdown two plays later).

Oh yeah, and did I mention the guy is 19-years old?

Had BYU won this game the only thing being discussed in the sports mediums would be how great Jake Heaps played and how set for the future BYU's offense appears to be. Even with the loss, some people couldn't resist from praising Heaps' performance.

“You guys witnessed a great player play today. He’s young, but he’s a phenomenal, phenomenal player.” - BYU safety Andrew Rich

“It bears noting at this point that in his first rivalry game, Jake Heaps showed poise beyond his years. The kid is a star in the making, a future pro, and you can see it on every snap.” - BYU radio voice Greg Wrubell

“I hate to say it, but he's going to be a great one.” - Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake.

“He looks to be the best I've seen in 10 years of covering the Mountain West Conference” - U of U radio voice Bill Riley.

Perhaps the quarterback's best play came after the game, when a Utah fan approached Heaps for his autograph. In a rivalry that has been filled with ugly behavior throughout the years, the humble approach of the fan and the willingness of a heartbroken player to sign his name marked a moment of class from both sides. It was another smart move by Heaps and an even smarter move by the Utah fan. Because if Heaps continues to progress at this rate, number nine is going to go down in history as BYU's number one quarterback of all time.

I'd want that autograph too.

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