It was too easy for Utah. Never mind that the Utes had beaten BYU 54-10 just a year ago. Never mind that they were up by 17 entering the fourth quarter, or that BYU had the life of a coma patient on offense.

It was too easy, and Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham could only talk so long about what his players didn’t do before referencing another factor.

“We had them on the ropes and we couldn’t knock them out,” Whittingham said. “That’s something you need to do when you get a team down…but it wouldn’t be the rivalry game if we just ended it.”

There’s a case to be made that the rivalry factor was the very reason BYU nearly stole a game in which they trailed most of Saturday night. It was because of the rivalry – and the Ute fans’ eagerness to celebrate their latest triumph in it – that the field was swarmed prematurely.

It may have been the excitement of the rivalry that caused the game clock operator to jump the gun one second early – and prompt game officials to put that precious one second back on the clock.

“These games [against BYU] take on a life of their own,” Whittingham said. “Each one, you can point to a specific thing or something that happened, and you’d be able to remember it.”

The difference in 2012 was that the one thing wasn’t completely in the control of BYU or Utah. Third parties – fans and the game clock – nearly changed the entire outcome.

And what if the outcome had changed? There was no escaping the what-if’s, not when they were only an upright’s width away from happening. The potential controversy and conflict had Riley Stephenson’s kick gone in were too big to ignore. Whittingham acknowledged as much, even if it was in a light-hearted, semi-joking manner.

“Pretty sure that last kick was at 11:59, so if it goes overtime, do we have to delay and go on Monday or what? It would have been Sunday,” Whittingham quipped.

The answer to that question , and others as well, ultimately wasn’t needed. Utah escaped with a 24-21 win over BYU at home, even though it was the home fans, players and clock operator that nearly took the victory away.

Had that happened, and BYU gone on to win, the rivalry could well have adopted a more sinister edge, with Utah fans looking forward to the two-year breakup between the teams in 2014 and 2015. BYU fans would have angrily defended the win, even as Utah tried to discredit it.

Because Stephensen’s kick was a shade too far to the left, all parties can breathe a sigh of relief – one that shouldn’t have been needed with Utah leading 24-7 in the fourth quarter.

Instead Utes quarterback Jon Hays was left shaking his head over the chaos of the game’s final second, a second that lasted nearly 20 minutes.

“I got swarmed by the student section,” Hays said. “I had no idea what was going on.”

“The first field goal we blocked, it was great, but the atmosphere kind of messed that up for us,” Utes receiver Dres Anderson said. “We had many opportunities to win on the first field goal, and for them to have another opportunity to get it, it wasn’t smart on us.”

The entire situation left Whittingham agreeing that crowd-controlling policies might need to be enforced after the hype of Rivalry Week nearly cost his team the win – more than once.

Yet in a way, Whittingham accepted the longest second of his career as just part of the thing that nearly cost his team the game in the first place – the rivalry.

“It’s just another dramatic end as has happened so many times,” Whittingham said. “You go back and it’s uncanny. I don’t know if you find another rivalry in the country that has had the drama this one has had for the last 15-20 years. I could be wrong, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find one.”

Which makes it a shame that it this rivalry will be nowhere to be found after next year.

Matt Petersen can be reached at mpetersen@heraldextra.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheMattPetersen.