Game Preview: Time for BYU to make amends with Utah

The Brigham Young Cougars (2-0) have been waiting a year for this game. The 2011 loss to rival Utah (1-1) still causes pain. BYU’s 11-1 record since then is nice, but does not console. Only a win on Saturday will suffice.

The 44-point loss to Utah was the largest deficit of defeat for BYU against the Utes since a 49-point loss in 1922--the first game of the series. It was the fifth time since 1988 that BYU had lost by 17 points or more to the Utes. The year following the first four occasions, BYU has come back strong the next year and won three of those four games. The only time BYU didn’t win was 2005.

The 2005 game presented BYU the challenge of preparing for a quarterback they had never before seen play. Brian Johnson was injured the week before and Brett Ratliff started for Utah. His distinctly different style of play took awhile to adapt to. BYU made a valiant effort to comeback and forced overtime, but the Utes still prevailed.

BYU will have a little deja-vu in 2012. Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn left Utah’s last game with injury, and has subsequently retired. The Utah quarterback situation has long been a wild card in this rivalry. Whether it has been the starter getting injured shortly before the game or switching quarterbacks in the middle of the game, the Utah quarterback usually has an impactful role in an unusual way.

Replacing Wynn will be John Hays. He is hardly a novice like Ratliff was in 2005. Hays (120-214, 1459 yards, 12 TD, 8 Int.) started nine games last year for an injured Wynn. The real wild card this year could be Travis Wilson. He is a true freshman and completed his only pass against Utah State for a touchdown. Like Taysom Hill has been a boost to BYU by playing a few downs in key situations, Wilson may be asked to do the same for Utah.

The key cog, however, in Utah’s offense is running back John White IV. He rushed for over 1,500 yards in 2011, but may not be 100 percent healthy against BYU. He missed some time in the last game, as well as a day of practice this week.

As encouraging as it is to hear of Utah’s offensive woes, and the possibility that they will be compounded with offensive coordinator Brian Johnson being a rookie, the Utes still rely on their defense. The Utah defense has taken some blows as well. Foremost among them being the suspension of defensive back Brian Blechen. However, the Utah d-line is as impressive as ever. If the Utah d-line is winning the battle in the trenches, then little else may matter.

This puts the pressure on the BYU offensive line. The slimmed down Cougar o-line will need to play much better than they have the first two games. While BYU has been able to pass the ball pretty well, quarterback Riley Nelson has been pressured and hit more than desired. The run stats are pretty good, but they don’t tell the whole story. Better holes need to be opened and more consistent rushing will be very helpful.

BYU may be able to get away with not running the ball well, but it will require the offense to play clean, meaning NO TURNOVERS. The turnovers in 2010 and 2011 had much more to do with BYU losing these games to Utah than the inability to run the ball.

Cody Hoffman had 8 receptions for 138 yards against Utah last year, and he has only gotten better. Should Utah choose to double team him, Nelson has several other options to choose from, especially if Ross Apo (5 receptions, 54 yards, 1 TD vs. Utah in 2011) is back after sitting out last week to nurse a sore hamstring.

Expect a few new wrinkles to the BYU offense this week. Listening closely to BYU coaches and players the last two weeks it is evident they have been working on a lot more plays and schemes than they have used in the first two weeks.

The BYU defense has been very good against the run under Bronco Mendenhall. Nevertheless, there is one or two games every year that the run defense breaks down and gives up close to 300 yards rushing. Needless to say, BYU can’t afford to have that happen this week.

Just like the offense, expect the BYU defense to be more complex. Blitzes and pass coverages will be disguised. The philosophy probably will be to make Utah beat BYU throwing the ball under a lot of pressure. The BYU defense needs to capitalize on the fact that the Utah offense is in a little disarray with a first year offensive coordinator. BYU needs to be aggressive and control the tempo of the game when Utah has the ball.

The key to the game for BYU will be defensive dominance and turnover free play. The defense needs to dominate and keep pressure off the offense to produce a lot of points to win. The offense can’t set up Utah for any cheap scores that will erode the defense’s motivation.

This should be another tough, close, hard fought game that will come down to a few plays in the fourth quarter.

All-time series record: Utah leads 51-31-4
Last: Utah won 54-10 (2011)
Streak: Utah won 2

TIME: 8:00 PM (Mountain Time)
RADIO: KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius XM 143

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