BYU, Utah football: Rivalry game brings out the best in players
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Just in the last six years, since BYU's Bronco Mendenhall and Utah's Kyle Whittingham have been at the helm of their respective programs, there have been classic rivalry moments.
When these arch-rivals get together, there's always the possibility of a dramatic finish and a hero emerging.
It could happen again today when the Utes and Cougars collide at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Asked this week about his favorite rivalry memory, Mendenhall said, "Last year's, I would say, because it's the most recent."
Twelve months ago at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, BYU quarterback Max Hall threaded a pass between two Utah defenders to tight end Andrew George for a touchdown to seal a 26-23 overtime win.
"I remember (George) running to the end zone with his arms back and kind of really excited about it," Mendenhall recalled. "That seems to be the epitome of the games when we play. I can't predict that that's what this one will be like — I never know for sure."
More often that not, this game is close and decided late in the fourth quarter. In four of the last five games, the outcome has been in doubt until the final play. In 11 of the past 13 meetings, the margin of victory has been a touchdown or less. It's become almost expected in each BYU-Utah showdown..
"I've never been a part of anything like it," Mendenhall said of the rivalry. "It seems like it matters a lot to the coaches, the players, the players' families and the fans. They hear that a lot, but they also inherit this tradition of these games are known to be close and that these games are known to be highly contested and very competitive.
"It's almost like to honor and to do your part in the rivalry, you want to make sure it's similar to what it's been before. It's almost like claiming your place as worthy to be in the rivalry is how you played the year before or how you play in that particular year. You don't want to be the team, or the coach, that has a lopsided game or doesn't perform their best in a situation like this."
Senior defensive lineman Vic So'oto, BYU, knows what's at stake today.
"It means a lot to the state and especially to the players on both teams," he said. "As far as what I'm expecting, it's going to be a dogfight. All of our wins and losses this year have been tough, hard-fought games. I wouldn't expect anything less (against Utah)."
BYU senior safety Andrew Rich, who grew up in Ogden, has plenty of fond memories of the rivalry as a fan and as a player.
"In 2006, I just got home from my mission and I was at Rice-Eccles when Jonny Harline caught the ball (from John Beck) to win the game," he said. "The atmosphere is definitely electric. I'm a fan of it, even though on Saturday we won't have a lot of people rooting for us. It's just a fun experience to play in it."
While there's plenty of pressure, hype and expectations tied up in this game, Rich said it's important to have fun, too.
"I think you have to embrace it and enjoy it. From my experience, if you don't embrace it and enjoy it, what are you doing?" Rich said. "As a football player, you love to play in a game like that. Everybody's so heated up. I like being in situations like that. Win or lose, it's going to be a good experience for me. We're going to work our hardest to be able to compete and win."
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