Game Preview: BYU vs. Utah

As if playing arch rival Utah wasn’t enough motivation, BYU has plenty of reasons to play their best ball on Saturday. First, it is senior day for 20 BYU players, including Max Hall, Dennis Pitta, Manase Tonga, Andrew George, Jan Jorgensen, Scott Johnson, and Coleby Clawson. After dropping two games at home for the first time in four years, the seniors want to finish their careers with a win at home and add to their overall dominance at home. Second, it can be another record breaking day for the Cougars. Dennis Pitta can break the school’s record for receptions in a career with just two catches and a win will give the school at least 10 wins for four consecutive years for the first time in school history. Third, Pitta can win the Mackey Award with a strong performance today. He is by far the best tight end in the country, and the latest in a long line of great tight ends at BYU.

Utah comes into the game having a better year than I expected. Having lost the starting quarterback to graduation, and two defensive stars to the NFL from last year’s Sugar Bowl Champion team, I expected the Utes to have one or two more losses coming into this game. As it is, Utah’s only losses have come to TCU and Oregon on the road. All signs point to another game that goes down to the wire, unless Utah has poor quarterback play. Poor quarterback play by Max Hall led to Utah’s large margin of victory last year. This year Utah will start freshman Jordan Wynn at quarterback; his fourth career start. Utah has a solid run game and a traditionally stout defense. The difference in this game will come down to how well Wynn plays. Freshman quarterbacks across the country have had some shining moments this year, but recently they have had some tough “learning experiences.” The BYU defense should have prepared some defensive blitzes and schemes to disrupt the Utah backfield to take advantage of Wynn’s inexperience. BYU should be able to contain Wynn better than the quarterbacks for Florida State and TCU. Christian Ponder is a legitimate NFL prospect, and Andy Dalton is in his third year starting for the Horned Frogs.

Here’s some other things that I will be watching:
  1. Will BYU use a balanced passing and rushing attack on offense? In 2008, BYU trailed Utah 27-24 late in the third quarter, but the momentum was clearly on BYU’s side. The Cougars used the ground game to score a touchdown on its last possession. The play calling abandoned the run at this point, and Hall turned the ball over on every BYU possession for the rest of the game. Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged BYU’s need to maintain a balanced attack following the Florida State game this year. Unga has been limited by some nagging injuries lately, but Tonga, Bryan Kariya, and J.J. DiLuigi can fill in nicely if injuries limit Unga’s playing time this week.
  2. Will Max Hall have a good game? In two previous outings against Utah, Hall has not had a good statistical game. In fairness, he did connect with Austin Collie for 49 yards on 4th and 18 in 2007 on the game winning drive, but he has not completed more than 51 percent of his passes in a game against Utah, he has zero passing touchdowns, he has not thrown for more than 269 yards, and he has thrown 6 interceptions. Hall has played better this year in big games against Oklahoma and TCU than he did in big games last year.
  3. Will BYU keep their emotions in check? Last week against Air Force, BYU let their emotions get the best of them after the officials called back a touchdown on a controversial penalty for attempting to deceive. Rather than kicking the field goal on fourth down, BYU went for the touchdown. The result was an interception. Fortunately for BYU the game was so out of reach, and it was so much the better team that this interception did not impact who won the game. This week such a play could be the difference between a win and loss. It is alright for BYU to play with added emotion in this game. The emotions become a problem when they start to impair judgment.
  4. Will Harvey Unga eclipse the 1,000 yard mark for the third year in a row? No BYU back has ever had three 1,000 yard rushing seasons in a career. Unga is 100 yards away from his third consecutive 1,000 yard rushing season. This is more impressive considering the fact that he sat out almost all of the first two games, and went to the bench early in two other games this year for injuries. He ran for 116 yards on 15 carries last year against Utah and 141 yards on 23 carries the year before.
  5. Will Utah make a quarterback change if they are behind in the second half? About 10 years ago, Utah had a quarterback situation similar to today. The quarterback that started the year was benched and did not start the BYU game. During the BYU game coach Ron McBride switched quarterbacks, which enabled the Utes to come back from a large deficit and take a lead in the fourth quarter or to win the game. This happened a couple of times. Does Kyle Whittingham make the same move as McBride if Jordan Wynn is not playing well and the Utes find themselves behind by a couple of scores late in the second half? BYU has prepared for Wynn, so Terrance Cain would present an unknown element that could give life to the Utah offense and be the difference between a win and a loss.
Kickoff: 3:00 PM (MST)
TV: CBS College Sports and The Mtn.
Radio: KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM