BYU vs. Utah: Five Things to Watch For

The Holy War. Rivalry week in Utah.  BYU and Utah in Salt Lake City, Saturday night on national television. All of these aspects make this a big time game for the Brigham Young Cougars, but besides the rivalry, this game could change the course of the season. This is the week BYU proves they are a legitimate top 25 team or show they aren’t even the best team in the state of Utah.

Here is what to watch for Saturday night:

      1.       Is Utah hungry and motivated after last week’s loss to Utah State, or is it disheartened?

      After tough losses like that, teams can go either way.
      In 2001, Nebraska was undefeated and ranked No.2 heading into its final regular season game against a good, but not great, Colorado team.  Nebraska was steamrolled on national television during the Thanksgiving weekend 62-36. Somehow, without even playing in the Big-12 championship game (but that’s a discussion for another time), they managed to get into the BCS national championship game to play the Miami Hurricanes. A lot of people thought they would come back and play tough in the championship game; the loss was the best thing that could have happened to them because it was a wakeup call. In the first half of the BCS title game, however, Nebraska must have still been asleep because the halftime score was 34-0. They went on to lose in the one of the most one sided BCS championship game ever.

      In 2006, however, another top team did just the opposite. USC was also ranked No. 2 heading into their final regular season game. USC was a heavy favorite over cross-town rival UCLA. Win and they would be back in the BCS national championship game to avenge their previous season’s loss to Texas. USC had averaged over 32 points a game up to that point. The unranked and sub-0.500 Bruins held the Trojans to single digits, and won 13-9.  The speculation leading up to the Rose Bowl began. Would USC play the way they had all season up that game, or would they just fall over to No. 3 Michigan? After a competitive first half, USC scored 16 unanswered points and pulled away for a 32-18 win, erasing the memory of loss to UCLA.

      So the question is, which Utah team will show up? The Nebraska or USC version?

      2.       How fast will BYU start the game?

      After analyzing the two games mentioned above, what was the difference? Why did Nebraska fall twice in a row while USC’s seemed to have no effect on them? I think they key is how fast does the opponent start.

      Both teams probably had their previous loss in their minds.  However, once the game started, the thought of the last loss either grew, or diminished based on how quickly the other team began. Miami crushed Nebraska out of the gates and Nebraska could only think about how they were the inferior team, and it was the Colorado game all over again. Michigan on the other hand, started off slow with only a field goal in the first quarter. USC started slow, too, but they were only three points behind. Then they kicked a field goal of their own in the second quarter, and the game was tied at halftime. They were no longer thinking about their previous loss, but about how they were in a competitive game and could come out as Rose Bowl champions. They started the third quarter hot, and pulled away for the win.

      With that being said, question No. 2 will answer question No. 1. If BYU can start the game fast, the Utes will probably come out dejected. If they start slow and let Utah hang around, they will forget what happened last week and their focus will be entirely on the game at hand.

      BYU starting fast worries me, however. The Cougars stalled in their opening drive against Washington State and didn’t score until the end of the first quarter against Weber State. I think the biggest key to this game is BYU’s start.

      3.       Who will take the bulk of the reps at quarterback for Utah?

With Jordan Wynn getting injured last week against Utah State, Jon Hays came in and led a comeback against Utah State. Hays played much better than Wynn and has proven he can lead the team. He went 6-3 last season as the starter after Wynn went out with injury during the more difficult part of Utah’s Pac-12 schedule.

But the true freshman Travis Wilson has a lot of hype. He was ranked the 11th-best high school quarterback last year by and has had a nice start to his season. In limited action, he hasn’t thrown an incompletion and even had a nice touchdown pass on a trick play against the Utah State.

Whittingham is mum for now on who he will start but I think he will go with Hays. But for BYU, does it even matter who the starter will be? They say no.

“It’s not any different for us,” senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree said.  “They didn’t really change their offense when the two quarterbacks came into the game that we could tell so our preparation is going to remain the same no matter who plays.”

      4.       John White hurt too?

The Utes are banged up bad. White momentarily left the game against Utah State last week with an injury. Then on Tuesday, he was reported to have missed practice.

Panic and turmoil started among Ute fans, until the Salt Lake Tribune reported White just missed practice because he had a school assignment he had to do.

But how much of that is just a cover up? Is he actually hurt? Any time someone has to leave the game for a little while it is more than just a bump or scrape. White says he’s, “100 percent,” but we will see soon. It will be very interesting to see how much impact White has on this game.

      5.       How will Riley Nelson handle a tough road environment?

Looking through Riley Nelson’s career, I realized that I have never seen him play in a game that was considered a competitive matchup with a hostile road crowd. The only games that come close to that are in 2010 against Florida State (34-10 loss) and Air Force (35-14 loss), and in 2011 against Oregon State (38-28 win), TCU at Cowboy Stadium (38-28 loss) and Hawaii (41-20 win).  In his time at Utah State, he played one big road game at Boise State and lost 49-10. 

Of the above mentioned games, the only game that was somewhat competitive was last year’s matchup with TCU. Nelson didn’t play great, and is only remembered there for high fiving the referee after converting a two-point conversion.  Cougar fans love Riley’s grit and toughness, but can he come through in a big road game? This time, Riley needs to do more than make Sports Center’s Not Top Plays for his road game antics.

I can’t wait to see how everything plays out. This game has the potential to jumpstart a very special season for BYU.

Check back at Blue Cougar Football after the game to review these Five Things to Watch For and other game observations.

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