Utah, BYU football: Everyone's hyped for historic final MWC clash
Brendan Sullivan, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — This is supposed to be the last one that matters.
With BYU headed to independent status and Utah ticketed for Pac-12 membership, this afternoon's game at Rice-Eccles Stadium could be the last conference matchup the rivals ever play against one another.
Decades of joint league membership in football will conclude with this season-ending Mountain West Conference clash. However, thanks to undefeated TCU, there are no championship implications.
Does it matter? Not really.
Utah's biggest sporting event has much more than a title riding on it each year.
"Definitely. The winner wins the state pretty much, has bragging rights for the whole rest of the year," said Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn. "And with what's going on next year, it's a good lift-off."
Impending changes, however, likely won't alter the passion associated with the series.
"The game itself carries so much weight anyway, I don't think it would matter if we were in the same conference, different conferences," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. "I think the tradition of the game holds enough regardless of what other things you add to it.
"It will be interesting to play it earlier in the year from now on. That will be quite a bit different. How that affects the rivalry, it will be hard to say."
This will be the last November meeting between the Cougars and Utes. Because of Pac-12 scheduling rules, the rivals will meet in September starting next season.
"Every game matters and this series goes on," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "Now it's going to be in a different time slot which will give it, definitely, a different feel. But it'll continue on — at least in the near future."
As for the present, players from both sides are looking forward to the matchup.
Utah center Zane Taylor, a team captain, acknowledged it's a perfect "Senior Day" scenario. Taylor and 17 others will be honored in pregame ceremonies.
"This is my last big game to play in front of my family and friends here at Rice-Eccles," he said. "There is nothing better than being able to play my last game, Senior Day here at Rice-Eccles, against BYU. It's going to be great."
The Utes, he added, vow to be ready.
So, too, do the Cougars.
True freshman quarterback Jake Heaps is eager for the challenge.
"If I'm not ready, then I might as well not show up on the field, right? I'm going to give it everything that I've got," he said. "This is the biggest game of the year. They're going to be ready, we're going to be ready. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Wynn, though, is hoping the fun will be one-sided. He hopes Heaps finds it as hostile in Salt Lake City as Wynn found it to be in Provo as a true freshman a year ago.
The rivalry, Wynn noted, is everything everyone says it is and more.
"It's real hostile. I didn't think it was going to be that hostile going into their stadium," he recalled. "So being a true freshman (like Heaps), it's tough to really stay composed. So, hopefully, Rice-Eccles is bouncing up and down trying to get in his head."
Whittingham said Heaps' relative inexperience won't change Utah's defensive approach.
"Just like any other game or week of the season, we try to mix things up," Whittingham explained. "Keep the quarterback off balance whether he's a new guy or a veteran guy."
As such, he added, the Utes need to do a good job with pre-snap disguises and picking pressure situations.
While Heaps is an established passer, BYU's ground game is also a concern. The Cougars are averaging 172.8 yards per game rushing.
Utah counters with the nation's 10th-best defense against the run. The Utes are allowing just 107.7 yards per game.
"We've played pretty good run defense this year and the running game has really been a strong suit for them," Whittingham said. "So that should be an interesting matchup."
Storylines, as usual, are plentiful whenever BYU and Utah square off.
Eleven of the past 13 meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less.
"I think the players, coaches and entire state knows how much fun the game can be and what the anticipation is to play a BYU-Utah game," Mendenhall said.
The only blowouts in recent years came in the Utes' Bowl Championship Series seasons in 2004 and 2008.
"We're looking forward to the game this week," Whittingham said. "There are no conference championship implications or anything of that nature, but it's still rivalry week and it will be an intense game — what we expect, as always."
Utes, Cougars on the air
BYU (6-5, 5-2 MWC) at Utah (9-2, 6-1)
Today, 1:30 p.m.; Rice-Eccles Stadium
TV: The mtn., CBS C
Radio: 700 AM, 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
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