Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that on Saturday in Salt Lake City the BYU Cougars will once again face off against its adversary for over 100 years, the Utah Utes. A five game losing streak rests on BYU’s shoulders, including the loss in the final game of the 2015 season, and Utah is once again favored to win.
But a lot has changed since December when the Utes and Cougars were forcefully matched up in the Las Vegas Bowl. A new era of BYU Football is here and it brings a new dawn of hope and excitement among the fan base—particularly when it comes to the annual match-up with that school up north.
Why does it feel different going into this particular rivalry game than it has in recent memory?
It might have something to do with the fact that a majority of the new staff are former BYU Football players—guys who understand the rivalry, who are a part of its history, and who know what it means to win that game.
Once he landed the head coaching job, Kalani Sitake, who played at BYU under beloved coach LaVell Edwards, immediately sought out other alumni like Ed Lamb, Mike Empey, Ben Cahoon, and campus hero Ty Detmer to join his staff. Since then, the program has taken giant strides in terms of its relationship with former BYU players. This staff clearly wants them to feel welcome and involved. Already the emphasis on the Tradition part of the “Tradition, Spirit, Honor” catchphrase has revitalized the program from the inside out. It feels more like a true brotherhood than it has in years.
Most importantly, these coaches seem to understand the impact that former players might be able to make on their current players.
One of the more visible manifestations of their understanding of the importance of this relationship is the change to have not one but three alumni flag-bearers at each game. On Wednesday, Director of Player Personnel Jack Damuni (also a former player) announced that Jonny Harline, Cameron Jensen, and Bryan Kehl would be honored with the task of leading the team onto the field before kickoff against arch rival Utah.
What’s so significant about this decision?
Jensen, Harline and Kehl are all members of the last BYU team to defeat the Utes in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Our flag bearers for the Holy War.— Jack Damuni (@JackDamuni) September 7, 2016
Rise and Shout!!! pic.twitter.com/Za4p3spc29
Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?
Heading into the match-up in Salt Lake City on November 25, 2006, BYU was loaded with talent. In addition to senior tight-end Harline, senior linebacker Jensen, and junior linebacker Kehl, that team included standouts on defense like Jan Jorgensen (current Graduate Assistant), Kelly Poppinga, David Nixon, Romney Fuga, and Russell Tialavea (current Director of Football Operations), and stars on offense like Curtis Brown, Manase Tonga, Jake Kuresa, Fui Vakapuna (current Assistant to the Athletic Director), McKay Jacobsen and, of course, senior QB John Beck.
Ranked no. 21 in the country, the Cougars were undefeated in Mountain West Conference play, their only losses of the season coming at Arizona on a last-second Wildcat field goal and at No. 23 Boston College in double overtime. Led by their “General” Jensen, the stacked BYU defense ranked 10th nationally in points allowed per game (14.7) and 4th nationally in turnover margin.
But the Cougars were also on a four-game losing streak to Utah, and desperate for a win. Sound familiar?
On paper BYU probably should have won that game handily—but it was a rivalry game, after all, and you never know quite what to expect.
BYU jumped out to a 14-0 lead early in the first quarter, which featured domination by Jensen and Kehl on defense and a beautiful 36-yard touchdown pass from Beck to Harline.
As expected in these types of high-emotion games, momentum swung and the Utes came charging back, scoring 24 straight points and holding the Cougars scoreless over the second and third quarters for a 24-14 lead. Not willing to go gentle into a fifth-straight loss, the team rallied around each other and began its fourth quarter comeback, finally regaining the lead at 27-24 with three minutes to play.
But it wasn’t over. Utah put together an 83-yard drive over 1:55 to go up 31-27. With 1:09 remaining, only a touchdown would secure BYU the win.
What happened next is likely the most memorable touchdown drive in recent rivalry history. On 4th-and-7 from the BYU 53, Beck completed a 16-yard pass to Harline for the first down, keeping hope alive with 27 seconds left and 37 yards to go. Then, on 3rd and 10 from the Utah 11, with time for one final play, Beck finds his guy Jonny, and a prayer is answered.
That heroic, heart-stopping moment will live forever in the hearts of loyal Cougar fans as one of the best finishes in BYU Football history.
Jonny Harline finished the game with seven receptions, 118 yards, and three touchdowns, including that unforgettable catch on his knees after time expired. Cameron Jensen and Bryan Kehl each finished with 10 tackles and a sack. John Beck, who served as alumni flag-bearer against Arizona last week with Max Hall (the only other BYU quarterback to beat Utah since Beck in 2006—coincidence? I think not), went 15-20 for 156 yards and three touchdowns in the final 12 minutes.
In a game with zero turnovers, four personal foul penalties in the second half, and almost dead even in yards and time of possession, it took every guy on that team and a whole lot of heart to make that win happen. No one knows that better than Jensen, Harline and Kehl.
This year, BYU finds itself without a single player on the current roster knowing what it’s like to beat Utah on the gridiron. Who else could boldly lead them into enemy territory in hope of a victory than Jensen, Harline and Kehl, teammates who not only know what it’s like to be on a multiple-game losing streak to Utah, but who know exactly what it takes to beat the Utes on their own turf? Those guys can confidently look this team in the eye and say “We’ve done it before. You can do it again. Go get ‘em.”
Maybe when the clock expires on Saturday night, new heroes will join Jensen, Kehl, Beck and Harline in the annals of the Holy War.
You just never know. That’s what makes this game so great.