Say it with me, Cougar faithful, "The Holy War in Sin City." The latest matchup between the BYU Cougars and their hated rivals, that team to the North, will take place at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas this Saturday, and I, for one, cannot wait.
The two year hiatus is over, and even though the Cougars didn't get a chance to match up with the boys in red during the regular season, the fact that it's coming during a bowl makes it all the sweeter, and the stakes all the higher, for both schools, both from a bragging rights and a prestige perspective.
It's been years since the last time the Cougars prevailed against their Northern rivals, six years to be exact, when the Cougars won 26-23 in overtime, on a memorable play in which Andrew George caught a pass from Max Hall and ran untouched to the end zone while the defenders in red ran into each other.
Since then, however, the boys from up North have dominated the rivalry, winning four in a row. This game figures to be more of a slugfest than a shootout. Even though BYU has a high-flying offense, the Cougars are facing off against one of the best defenses in the Pac-12. The boys in red definitely know how to play defense.
One interesting fact about the game, however, is that BYU has a very salty defense as well. Both teams are giving up the same number of points per game at 21.8, and BYU has a slightly better pass defense, while the boys from up north have a better run defense. In all, this looks to be one of the most even matchups that we've seen from the two sides in this rivalry in years.
The team from up North is missing star running back, Devontae Booker. Before going down, Booker was leading the Pac-12 in carries while he racked up 1,261 yards and 11 touchdowns. Without him, their offense has sputtered, only managing to put up 27 against a dismal Oregon State defense, and dropping games against Arizona and UCLA, and against the Bruins the team in red only managed to score nine points. And that was against a UCLA defense without All-American linebacker Myles Jack.
The key to victory for the Cougars in this matchup is the play of their defensive secondary, led by senior safety Michael Wadsworth. Wadsworth has had a sneaky good season for the Cougars, anchoring a solid back end of the defense and leading the team in the tackles with 79 total. He's allowed fellow safety Kai Nacua to be in position to lead the team in interceptions, and rank highly in the nation, with six picks.
Rounding out the defensive secondary is Michael Davis -- who leads the team in passes defensed with 10, despite not notching any interceptions this year -- and freshmen Michael Shelton and sophomore Micah Hannemann, who have combined for three interceptions and nine passes defensed between them.
The reason I feel the secondary will be key to BYU winning this game is that even though Booker's replacement Joe Williams has rushed for 386 yards on the season, most of it coming in the last two games for the team from up North, he lacks the explosiveness and steady production of Booker that was the engine of their offense for much of the season.
In addition, BYU's front seven has shown a capability to shut down running backs on the season (just not, apparently, against traps against UCLA).
So, you have the safeties, who will be key to the matchup, because Wilson shows a propensity for targeting tight ends and receivers down the seam. Most of his big plays come on seam routes to tight ends, or wheel routes to either tight ends or wide receivers. I expect the Cougar defense to limit how effective these plays will be for Wilson, and the ball-hawking Nacua should make him pay if he tries to force the ball deep. The play of the cornerbacks, particularly Shelton or Praetor in the nickel, will also be key if Utah's speedy Britain Covey is able to play.
All in all, expect the Cougar defense to frustrate the offense of their Northerly rivals, as the pass rush and smothering pass defense forces them to make some mistakes. If the Cougars can avoid making mistakes of their own, they should win the turnover battle, and that will put them in a great position to win this game. I expect them to pick off at least one of Wilson's passes, and if they prevent their rivals from getting any big plays over the top, that bodes well for them in what should be a close, slugfest of a contest.