The 1996 season played like a familiar old tune to Utah football fans. They recognized every refrain in Utah's 8-4 record, run at the Western Athletic Conference title, four weeks in the Top-25 and bowl invitation. Screeeeech. Wait a minute. Since when are the above accomplishments deserving of Golden Oldie status at Utah?
Answer: Since the '96 Utes merely sang the same song as their predecessors. Utah's eight wins pushed its average season win total under Head Coach Ron McBride to seven--the best seven-year average in the school's 104-year football history. Utah boasts 12 eight-win seasons ever--a sixth of those in the last three years. The time spent by the 1996 Utes in the Top-25 brought back memories of the No. 9 ranked 1994 Ute team. And the post-Christmas bowl trip was the fourth in five years for Utah.
So, was 1996 a yawner for Ute fans? Far from it. Familiarity rarely breeds contempt when it involves winning. A packed Rice Stadium watched the Utes defeat four of five home opponents. Among those was a 45-42 shoot-out over then No. 20 ranked Kansas--one of the wildest, most exciting games of the 1996 college football season.
Inside and outside Rice Stadium, Utah reeled off seven straight wins from September 7 to October 26. Key among those was a 17-10 road win over bowl-bound Stanford. Three times the Utes piled up 45 points during that stretch, while holding opponents to three touchdowns or less five times. Running backs Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Juan Johnson provided some dazzling ground work: The former averaged 169 yards per game in the five games he played during that time, and the latter contributed two 100-yard games. Senior free safety Harold Lusk set the school interception record with his 18th career pick in Utah's Homecoming win over Tulsa. He would finish his career with 19 interceptions. And quarterback Mike Fouts bagged two WAC Player of the Week certificates for his work.
Ironically, the Utes opened their set with a sad song. They played uninspired ball in a season-opening 20-17 loss to Utah State in Logan--their first loss to the Aggies in nine years. But the very next week, the Utes showed why they were picked to challenge for the WAC title, upsetting the Pac-10's Stanford in Palo Alto, 17-10. Utah took out its first-game frustrations on the Cardinal, scoring on its very first possession when Fuamatu-Ma'afala dragged most of the Stanford defense three yards into the end zone. At the end of three quarters, Utah had the game well in hand, 17-0.
The next week the beat picked up, as did the heart beats of Ute followers. The Ute defense had to hold on for four straight downs from inside their own 16-yard line to escape the Cotton Bowl with a 21-17 win over a revived SMU program. Defensive back Clarence Lawson and linebacker Jason Hooks preserved the win in the waning seconds. Lawson broke up two passes in the end zone and Hooks deflected a certain TD toss.
Possibly the tempo turner for the season came seven days later. Trailing Fresno State 14-0 less than six minutes into their first home game, the Utes busted loose for 24 straight points and a 45-17 win. Fuamatu-Ma'afala rang up 169 yards and Johnson tied a school record with four rushing touchdowns (he gained 91 yards). The Brandon Dart-led defense slammed the door on FSU in the second half. Dart's seven-tackle, two-pass breakup, one-interception game helped Utah blank the Bulldogs in the final two quarters.
Utah scored 45 points again a week later--this time against a respected and ranked Kansas team. Fouts threw for a career-best 476 yards and four touchdowns, including the game winner to Rocky Henry with 1:39 remaining. Receiver Kevin Dyson was unstoppable, with 172 yards and a 65-yard TD pass from Fouts. Henry added 129 yards and three TD catches. Utah broke into the national rankings at No. 24 with the big win.
The Utes would win three more games before seeing their win streak snapped. Fuamatu-Ma'afala, just a sophomore, and Johnson, a junior, shouldered the burden. Fuamatu-Ma'afala rushed for 236 yards--second-best in school history--and three touchdowns in a 34-27 win over UTEP. He then ran Utah past TCU on October 12 in Salt Lake City--rumbling for 182 yards and two TDs. But the weekend ended on a sour note. Fuamatu-Ma'afala injured his knee and underwent surgery that would force him to miss the next three games. Johnson kept the team on track the first game after his counterpart went down--rushing for a career-high 197 yards in a 45-19 rout of Tulsa.
The chorus crumbled in Utah's next performance. Ranked No. 20 and undefeated in the WAC, the Utes suffered their worst defeat in six years (51-10) at Rice on November 20. A week later, still sans their star runner, Utah rebounded for a 31-24 win at New Mexico, setting up a conference title game with Brigham Young.
The verse from the previous three years that had Utah beating BYU wasn't included this year, though. The Utes, who had won three straight against their neighbors to the south, fell 38-17 to the nationally ranked Cougars. Fuamatu-Ma'afala ran for 87 yards and a score in his return from the injured list, but Utah's offense and defense were never on the same page as BYU. The defeat knocked Utah into a second-place tie in the WAC's Mountain Division, but an 8-3 record impressed the bowl scouts. The Copper Bowl came calling and offered Utah a shot at Wisconsin on December 27.
What was billed as the battle of the nation's two biggest running backs never materialized and, partly because of that, Utah lost a 38-10 decision. Fuamatu-Ma'afala injured his ankle in the first quarter and never returned, leaving the ground work to Wisconsin's Ron Dayne. Oddly, though Dayne rushed for 246 yards, the Utes gained nearly 100 more yards than UW and moved inside the Badgers' 20-yard line five times (inside the five twice). However, they couldn't translate yards into points in their worst bowl loss.
The last song for seniors like first-team all-WAC players Harold Lusk and Chad Folk and two-year starters Mike Fouts and Rocky Henry ended on a down note. But, an 8-4 record, a shot at a WAC division title, four weeks in the polls and a trip to a bowl made the 1996 season a melody worth replaying.