The BYU Cougars have had a unique beginning to their season, to say the least. A quirky loss to Virginia on the road was followed by a convincing home victory over Texas as the Cougars entered week 3 of the college football season with a bye. Offensively, the Cougars have looked like two completely different teams in each of their first two games, with the defense being the only constant thus far.
This Saturday night will mark the 14th day since the Cougars last played. Saturday's match-up will be the final time the Cougars and Utes play each other until 2016 -- the first gap in the rivalry since WWII.
Utah is a team that doesn't need much of an introduction to BYU fans. As arch-rivals, the Utes and Cougars know each other only all too well. Despite this fact, it's always fun during this time of year to take another look at all the aspects of the rivalry, and the characteristics which make each year unique.
Who are the Utah Utes?
Utah is considered one of the top 15 most successful college football programs of the BCS Era. In the last decade, the Utes have had two undefeated seasons, two BCS Bowl game victories, five Top 25 finishes, two Top 5 finishes (#4 and #2), a Heisman Trophy finalist, a #1 overall NFL Draft Pick, sent 27 players to the NFL, and have won 8 out of 9 bowl games. Also during that time, they have had an 18 game winning streak, two Coach of the Year Award winners, and have been invited to the PAC-12, a conference widely believed to be the 2nd best conference in the country. Few teams in the nation can lay claim to such an impressive resume over the last decade.
How have the Cougars fared against the Utes during this decade of success?
The Utes have won 3 in a row, 4 of the last 5, and 8 of the last 11 games against the Cougars. 13 of the last 16 games between these two teams have been decided by a touchdown or less, with the only three blow-outs being in Utah's favor (52-21 in '04, 48-24 in '08, and 54-10 in '11). Utah leads the all-time series with a record of 53-31-4.
So far this season, Utah's offense has performed extremely well (with the exception being the first quarter against OSU). Their offense is ranked 16th in the country. Utah has scored 148 points over the course of their three games this season, averaging just under 50 points a game. If you take away the game with Weber State, they are still averaging 39 points per game.
The Utah offense is led by sophomore QB Travis Wilson, coming in at 6'6" and 240 lbs, and who has been putting up excellent numbers. He comes into the BYU game ranked #11 in the country in QBR. As a true dual threat quarterback, Travis Wilson has proven that he can beat teams with his arm, as well as his feet. Wilson leads the Utes in rushing yards this season, putting up 244 yards on only 24 carries, averaging 10.2 yards per carry. He also has 5 rushing touchdowns on the season. His rushing stats are almost identical to Taysom Hill's, who is averaging 10.8 yards per carry, with 4 rushing touchdowns. The difference between Wilson and Hill is in the passing game. Wilson has proven that he can be just as efficient through the air as on the ground, with a completion percentage of 62.5% (ranked 59th out of 123). Hill's completion percentage comes in at just 33.3% (123rd out of 123).
Utah's rushing attack has been less than impressive thus far. Coming into the season, senior RB Kelvin York was supposed to take the reigns for the Utes running game. But after three games, sophomore James (Bubba) Poole seems to have established himself as the man for the job. Poole is averaging 5.2 yards per carry on 40 carries, with a total of 208 yards. Look for Poole to begin getting the majority of the carries for the remainder of the season. Utah has done a very good job at maintaining a balanced offensive attack, with 871 passing yards on the season and 746 rushing yards.
With Kenneth Scott's season ending injury in the first half of the first game, the Utah receiving corps took a major hit. Their leading receiver is junior Dres Anderson. Anderson is known for his speed, and his ability to get behind defenses and come up with huge plays. Once Dres is in the open field, he's almost impossible to catch. Dres comes into the BYU game as Travis Wilson's favorite target, averaging 26.3 yards per reception with three touchdowns. Utah also boasts two of the best tight ends in the Pac-12: Jake Murphy and Westlee Tonga. So far, the Utes haven't used them as much as many people expected they would.
The Utah offensive line has been okay, but has been inconsistent at times. They struggled against Utah State, but have shown improvement over the last two weeks. Kyle Whittingham's teams always have physical offensive and defensive lines. The offensive line will need to play their best game yet against BYU.
Utah's defense, more specifically their secondary, has by far been their biggest weakness this season. They have done an excellent job of stopping the run, giving up only 96 rushing yards per game (173 to Utah State, 69 to Weber State, and 48 to Oregon State). The Utes have made it clear that it won't be easy for teams to run the ball against them.
The defensive secondary is the blaring weakness of the Utah football team. Chuckie Keeton and the Utah State Aggies exposed this in week 1, when Keeton went 31-40 for 314 yards against Utah's secondary. The secondary seems to have digressed since that point, with Utah being torched through the air against Oregon State over the weekend. Oregon State QB Sean Mannion went 27-44 with 443 yards. Utah's passing defense looked to be the equivalent of Texas' rushing defense. Mannion did what he wanted when he wanted against Utah's secondary, and it seemed Utah could do nothing about it. It didn't matter if Utah stacked the box, or dropped the safeties back into coverage. They just simply could not stop the pass. Granted, Mannion and Keeton are two of the top 10 quarterbacks in the country this season.
There are several players to keep an eye on on Utah's defense. Senior DE Trevor Reilly is one of the toughest football players in the country. He played the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL, and still received honorable mention All-Pac-12 Honors. Reilly is a stud on and off the field, as he is balancing life as a full time student, football player, and dealing with the emotional stress of his infant daughter's battle with cancer. The other DE, junior Nate Orchard, is known for his excellent pass rushing skills, and also received honorable mention All-Pac-12 Honors in 2012. Another star of Utah's defense, hard-hitting LB Brian Blechen, has yet to see any playing time this season, as he is recovering from surgery. He is expected to redshirt.
Utah kicker Andy Phillips is 100% on the season with field goals and PAT's. He has made field goals of 45 yards, 41 yards, 38 yards, and 19 yards. He is 19/19 on PAT's. Anyone who follows the Holy War knows that the kicking game/special teams often plays a huge role in the outcome of these games.
What are they expected to accomplish this season?
With the 12th toughest schedule in the country this year, most people are expecting Utah to finish somewhere around .500, at best. Utah plays in the Pac-12, which currently features five Top 25 teams, and two teams (Oregon and Stanford) in the Top 5. In addition to their tough in-conference schedule, Utah scheduled 2 of their 3 non-conference games against very solid programs (Utah State and BYU). If Utah can win just 4 of their remaining 9 games, they should finish the regular season with a 6-6 record.
How do they match up with BYU?
The way the the Cougars and Utes match up this season is sure to make for another competitive and dramatic rivalry game. BYU's tough defense will be tested by Utah's strong offense. It will be interesting to see the Cougars strategy on how to contain the dual threat ability of Travis Wilson. Wilson has shown that he can efficiently make big throws, and when they aren't there, he can explosively escape the pocket and pick up large chunks of yardage. At the same time, teams have yet to prove that they can consistently move the ball against BYU's defensive, specifically their front seven anchored by Kyle Van Noy.
BYU's corners are their one weakness on defense. Texas was able to expose that a couple of times, but obviously not enough to make a difference. The biggest concern for BYU coming into this game is the fact they they have yet to show they can throw the football. Taysom Hill is ranked last in the country in completion percentage. His accuracy has been off in each of their first two games. Luckily, the Cougars didn't need a passing game to defeat Texas. But it appears the way to beat Utah is through the air. BYU can't expect to win this game on the ground. Utah's running defense (ranked 13th) is drastically better than Virginia's (111th) and Texas' (114th). Utah is sure to stack the box, doing everything they can to contain Taysom Hill and the BYU rushing attack, unless the Cougar's begin to take to the air.
This installment of the Holy War is sure to be as exhilarating as ever. Most of the BYU seniors don't know what it's like to beat the Utes (having lost 3 in a row, and 4 of the last 5), and you can be assured that they are finding a lot of motivation by not wanting to go out winless against their rivals. A BYU loss would result in a minimum seven year drought of beating the Utes. A lot of Utah's motivation stems from them knowing they most likely will need this win in order to be bowl eligible this season.
When they go to battle this Saturday night, one of these teams is going to have to break, and one of them is going to hold the bragging rights for the next two seasons. Kyle Van Noy said it best, "It's going to be a bloodbath."
[Controversial] Prediction: Utah wins 27-24.
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