COMMENTARY – In what turned out to be the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl National Game of the Week, BYU whipped Texas, then enjoyed a long bye week to get healthy and prepared for the rest of this long season. Physically, BYU should be ready for Utah. Mentally, BYU should be ready for Utah. Emotionally, well, we’ll see.
Certainly the Cougars must be ready and filled with anticipation with its last scheduled game vs. the Utes from the Pac-12. Even though Utah proves annually to be only a speed bump in the Pac-12 for teams like Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, Arizona State, etc., they are still a good sound football team. One of the best college football games I have watched in 2013 was the Utah-Utah State game during Week 1 of the college football season. The Utes just squeaked out a win at home vs. the Aggies after pulling a rabbit out of their hat and recovering an onside kick late in the game.
The University of Utah will be a tough and very physical opponent once again for this Brigham Young University squad. This game usually turns into a battle and typically goes right down to the end. As far back as I can remember, this game comes down to the kicker. BYU’s kicker, Justin Sorenson, received the Lou Groza Award honor for his performance vs. Texas and if it goes down to the end, BYU has faith in their kicking game. The kicking game seems to be so much more important when these two teams meet, especially after last year’s missed field goal. I think it will be a very close game and one team’s kicker may be the hero or the goat.
Vegas oddsmakers have BYU picked to beat Utah by seven points, but I think it could end up being closer than that. Utah has won the last few meetings between these two teams and I am sure BYU’s juniors and seniors have had a long week to think about that. While the Cougars were off last weekend, Utah was in a Pac-12 dogfight against Oregon State. It was a 51-48 OT win for the Beavers, but it showed that the Utes have no give-up. It was a good offensive match through the entire game and both teams’ QBs performed well. Oregon State QB Sean Mannion showed great composure as Utah QB Travis Wilson kept matching his touchdown scores with ones of his own. Mannion proved to have much more of an arm than Wilson, but Wilson made up for that with his wheels and several TD scrambles. Even though Wilson threw three interceptions, he rushed for 142 yards to keep the Utes in the game. This QB is young and definitely has some talent that BYU must prepare for.
On that note, I do not see BYU’s great defense struggling with Wilson at all. He is big and fast with decent scrambling ability, so BYU’s linebackers and safeties must keep an eye on him. But I just don’t see Kyle Van Noy, Daniel Sorenson, Bronson Kaufusi and so many others giving him daylight like Oregon State did. If Bronco Mendenhall is doing what I think he is doing this week, then the defensive game plan will include a spy on Wilson with linebacker or safety the entire game. This should limit his ability to scramble for first downs, which will force him to keep the ball in the air and that is clearly not his strength.
Utah’s offense will have to pull out tricks and use running backs and tight ends to move the ball. If I was putting the game plan together, I would watch out for the “gambler” side of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. He likes to run trick plays and will do everything he can to deceive BYU’s defense and special teams.
Meanwhile, the BYU defense will have to stop James Poole as he is proving to be a very solid running back. Poole is averaging 69.3 yards per game on the ground and 32.7 yards per game in receiving. This running back has the speed and moves to be dangerous if you do not wrap him up when tackling. Dres Anderson is the Utes leading receiver with three TD’s and 97.7 yards per game in receiving. Tight end Jake Murphy is a good all-around tight end with big play potential and can cause mismatches if the Cougars secondary is forced to cover him. All in all, BYU is set up to keep this Utah offense under control. I would really like to see BYU’s defense score to keep the pressure off BYU’s offense.
Offensively, the Cougars need to control the ball and stay away from crucial turnovers. In the recent past against Utah, the offense seems to have ball control issues early, thus giving the Utes an early lead and leaving BYU to play catch up. If the Cougs can keep the ball and control the clock, they can control this game. Utah will struggle to go heads up with BYU’s very solid defense, so this game’s outcome will hinge on the offense taking care of the ball. In other words, BYU must win the turnover battle.
The Texas game was fun, but Taysom Hill should not get to caught up in his near record-setting run performance against the Longhorns. He needs to keep his receivers in mind. Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo can stretch the field vs. the Utes suspect secondary. Utah State and Oregon State both exposed major weaknesses there.
In the run game, Jamaal Williams, Paul Lasike and Michael Alisa should have a good games. Utah is susceptible to the run, but the Utes front seven will be better than both Texas and Virginia. BYU needs to keep a fast, crisp pace while spreading the ball around to all of its talent.
Now, I very rarely take a side or give a biased look at things in this column, but it’s rivalry week, so let’s talk a little smack, shall we? Honestly, I am sick of hearing about Utah being in the Pac-12. It looks like the Utes will have a third consecutive season of tough losses with this Pac-12 schedule. The Utes only real chance at a winning season and a bowl game was to beat Oregon State, Colorado and a few of the lesser talented teams in the Pac-12. I do not see them playing at the same level as Oregon, Stanford, Arizona State, etc., this season. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
Do not get me wrong here, Kyle Whittingham is a great defensive mind and one of the better defensive coordinators around, but as head coach he has proven that he can’t win games in this conference. Frankly, he looks confused and scared standing on the sidelines every week. He seems shocked when they pull out a victory against teams that should be an easy win for a Pac-12 team.
Utah has four more Top 25 teams scheduled (as of this week’s AP poll) and it really looks bleak for them regardless of the outcome of this week’s rivalry game. If Utah’s program goes another season without going to a bowl game and is once again a bottom-feeder in the Pac-12, it might be time for them to find a new head coach. Sure, it’s tough to fill the shoes of Urban Meyer, but there are so many great head coaches out there and the state of Utah deserves to be represented by the best head coach possible.
I am not a typical BYU alumni or fan in that when these two teams are not playing each other, I would like to see Utah beat teams from outside of Utah. I am all for Utah teams (including Utah state, Weber State, SUU, Dixie) and want us to compete with the proven teams from back East, California and Texas. I just don’t see Whittingham and his staff taking this program anywhere but down for years to come!
The Death of a Rivalry?
Whichever team takes the victory on Saturday will have bragging rights in the state for several years as the rivals don’t play again until 2016. This will break a 68-year streak of annual games between these two universities. The Cougars and Utes have been playing each other regularly since 1922 and the only interruption to the rivalry game was World War II. That being said, I guess the past is the past with this old historic in-state rivalry. I am at the point personally where I say good for Utah, keep on keeping on in the Pac-12. It looks like Utah will be the bottom-dwellers of the conference year in and year out.
When I played at BYU years ago, we always looked forward to playing the bad teams in the conference. We called them Cake Teams (easy as eating a piece of cake). Teams like Wyoming, UNLV and New Mexico never could compete with the big boys of the Mountain West Conference. Realistically, that’s what Utah has become to the big boys of the Pac-12. Utah is nothing more than a cream puff on the dessert tray of the Pac-12. The Oregons and the USCs can’t wait to beat up on the Utes and pad their BCS votes. Why Utah left a conference where it could be at least bowl eligible in most years is beyond me. I guess the thought of Pac-12 money is worth the likelihood of going sub-.500 every season.
As for the Cougars, well, they’ll just have to look forward to scheduling teams like Notre Dame and Boise State every year. Surely Cougar fans can find a rival amid the exciting and varied schedule BYU is putting together each year while the Utes sleep on the couch in the Pac-12 basement.
Rivalry notes: BYU is 19-9 since the two teams left the Mountain West. Utah is 15-13 … Utah fans love to talk about the 2004 and 2008 seasons and subsequent Fiesta and Sugar Bowl victories. But the Utes have been a pedestrian 33-18 since ’08 … Utah was 41-8-4 against BYU from 1896-1971. Lavell Edwards was named head coach in 1972 and the Cougars have gone 26-15 against the Utes in the modern era … Utah has won the last three in the series and 8 of 11 dating back to 2002. But BYU owned the series for two decades from 1972 to 1992, winning 19 of 21 in that stretch … The most points scored in the series was in 1989 when BYU won 70-31. The Cougars led 49-0 in that game … BYU’s largest margin of victory (56-6) came in 1980. Utah’s biggest win (54-10) was just two years ago … The last tie game between the teams was in 1950, though the college football tiebreaker wasn’t added until the early 1990s … There have been just two overtime games, in 2005 (Utah won 41-34) and in 2009 (BYU won 26-23) … Generally speaking, the series has been noted for high-scoring games. But in 2003, Utah beat BYU 3-0 in a snow-packed thriller in Provo.
Spelling error corrected: QB Sean Mannion
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