COMMENTARY — Everywhere I turn, there are signs that it’s rivalry week in the state of Utah.
With social media these days, it seems nearly impossible to get through a day without seeing both Utah and BYU fans clashing once again — and its purely entertaining. If this game wasn’t already hyped up enough, now it’s set to be one of the bigger national games this week in college football and will be aired on Fox.
Like always, this week comes with high stakes for each program, and it was a relatively short break since the two teams played a little over nine months ago in the Las Vegas Bowl. Utah once again proved it was the better team on that day last December when an early turnover nightmare for BYU in the first quarter resulted in Utah building a lead that the Cougars were unable overcome.
But it’s a whole new season and a completely changed, revamped program in Provo.
Two famed senior starters, Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams, are back and healthy and it couldn’t have come at a better time with Ty Detmer calling the plays. This alone could prove to be the difference this time around for BYU. Having completely different offensive and defensive schemes for the Cougars will also affect this game drastically.
Saturday can’t come soon enough for fans from both sides.
I believe that this the year the Cougars can finally break the current five-game win streak the Utes have going. A win this week can set BYU up for a potential three-game win streak over Pac 12 teams with UCLA on deck next week in Provo.
The Cougars’ win over Arizona has them started in the right direction and it should be a confidence-builder considering the Wildcats have beaten Utah four years straight. There is no doubt that Utah had BYU’s number during the Bronco Mendenhall era, but this new staff could be just the thing BYU needs to get over the hump.
Coach Kalani Sitake and his new staff would like nothing more than to get this win, not only for another notch in the win column and over a second straight Pac 12 school, but to give the instate recruits something to think about. Almost all of the new coaching staff are former BYU players, so deep down they know what’s at stake in this game.
Utah has been able to take local recruits away from BYU directly from the outcome of these previous games, so the stakes are high for both programs on the recruiting front. Truthfully, the days are over when the young LDS athlete automatically accepted a scholarship to BYU if it was offered. Going on a mission? Utah can accommodate that just as well as BYU. Now the Utes have the Pac-12 and that five-game winning streak over the Cougars.
BYU needs this win. For confidence. For respect. But mostly for recruiting.
As for game strategy, well Sitake, who was an assistant at Utah for a number of years, surely has some insight as to the Utah program on more of an in-depth level. Could that help the Cougars in game prep? Probably not a ton, but every little bit helps. The real adjustment needed is the attitude — the whole BYU team needs to head to Salt Lake City this Saturday with a readjusted mind set from previous meetings. The Cougars must completely forget the past several games and go into this week with a chip on their shoulders.
The past five games (since BYU’s last win, a 26-23 decision in 2009) have all been decided by a single score, with the exception of the 2011 debacle in which BYU turned the ball over seven times and gave up two defensive touchdowns. That means the difference in those games has been one play, one kick, one moment.
That’s why playing with that little extra emotional edge can make all the difference. Change one play in four of the last five meetings and BYU comes in having won 5 of 6 from the Utes.
Utah played SUU last Thursday to open up the season with an unconvincing 24-0 home game finish. It was the first meeting between those two programs and it was expected to be a compete blowout. But SUU stood in there, taking all of Utah’s punches. Can we read anything into that closer-than-expected result? Probably not, though social media posts go to both extremes (“Utah’s offense sucks — only 24 on SUU?” or “Utah’s going to shut out BYU, that defense against SUU was legit.”).
The one thing we can take from that game is this: Utah has had two extra days to rest and prepare for BYU. Time to heal. Time to scheme. Time to get much-needed reps.
The social media hype was right on one point — The Utes looked really solid on defense. But it’s hard to know how good (or bad) the T-Bird offense is. Allowing only seven first downs is an impressive feat.
Utah sputtered on offense and is clearly missing running back Devontae Booker (now with the Denver Broncos). New QB Troy Williams was serviceable, but not spectacular. He avoided interceptions, which is obviously a plus for the Utes. Although running back Joe Williams only had 49 rushing yards, BYU’s defense needs to be aware that Williams has blazing speed. He’s the fastest Ute and letting him get free in the open field would be a nightmare.
The Utes are a 3.5-point favorites this week and the game is not expected to be really high-scoring with the over/under set at 45.5.
I believe it will be a really physical and tough defensive matchup this week — don’t expect a whole ton of scoring going on.
As a former player, I just can’t express to those who have never played in one of these in-state rivalry games just how much it means. You know that all eyes will be on this game and, for seniors at BYU, it’s their one last chance to possibly beat Utah.
Saturday night, BYU can exorcise some demons and erase six years of disappointment.
Let the Holy War begin.
Blue Blood is a sports column written by former BYU lineman and captain Scott Young. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.
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