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Utah Utes football: Changes to rivalry shouldn't cool the fire

Matchup earlier than usual, still plenty of will to win

Published: Monday, Sept. 12 2011 10:17 p.m. MDT

University of Utah's Tony Bergstrom talks with members of the media during a press conference Monday, Sept. 12, 2011 at the football facility about the loss to USC and the upcoming game with BYU..

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Although Utah and BYU disagree, naturally, on when their football rivalry began, fact is it's been a long time since the Utes and Cougars played each other in a nonconference game.

From Utah's perspective, Saturday's meeting at LaVell Edwards Stadium is the first without league ties in 113 years — dating back to a 5-0 victory over BY Academy on Nov. 24, 1898. BYU, however, doesn't recognize six early games that Utes does. The folks in Provo believe the series began in 1922 when both schools were in the Rocky Mountain Conference.

Whatever the case may be, Utah's membership in the Pac-12 and BYU's football independence have brought change to the "Rivalry Game." For the first time since 1968, the annual contest won't be played in November. It's the first September date in the series since 1958.

What does it all mean? Not much, according to the Utes.

"I don't think it loses anything. It's a rivalry game, both teams want to win real bad. I know we do," said Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn. "So I think it's the same as it is every year. Obviously it has no effect on what happens in our conference, but I don't think it will lose anything because of that."

Linebacker Chaz Walker agrees.

"I don't think it diminishes anything," he said. "It definitely puts a little different twist on the whole game, but there's still going to be that rivalry aspect to the game whether it's at the first of the season or at the end of the season."

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham expects the game to be "every bit as intense and competitive as it's ever been."

The biggest sporting event in the state each year, he added, "is what it is."

Tony Bergstrom likes it that way. The Utah offensive lineman noted that the Utah-BYU game is something "you'll either be hearing about it or talking about it the rest of the year."

It's part of the beauty of the rivalry, he explained, while noting that it adds to the game a little bit.

"I know others disagree with me but you go anywhere else in the country, those rivalries are heated," Bergstrom said. "I'm not saying there should be anything violent or criminal or anything like that, but it's good there should be a little enmity and animosity between teams."

And in his mind, things are just as hot as ever between the Utes and Cougars.

"I can't say how it is down there (in Provo), but I'm assuming it is as far as that team goes," Bergstrom said. "But up here, it's definitely as heated as ever."

Turning down the temperature, though, isn't something Whittingham is opposed to.

"It has gotten a little bit overboard in situations, to say the least, but hopefully cooler heads will prevail this year and we'll be able to have uneventful situations in the stands and on the field — that type of thing and keep it in perspective," he said.

"It's a great rivalry. It's great game. It's intense. But there is that line you cross over that hopefully we don't cross over this year — 'we' being everybody involved."

It remains to be seen if playing in September instead of November will defuse the rivalry. Over the past 30 years, the Utah-BYU game was played at the end of the season 28 times.

Thus far, Whittingham doesn't sense anything different with the earlier meeting date.

"I think time will tell. We'll get to go through it for probably a few years with this format and make a determination at that point and time," he said. "But right now, as far as the preparation and our approach to the game, it's no different than it has been."

However, the changing landscape of college football brings a degree of uncertainty about the future. Scheduling is a factor, just as it is now with Pac-12 rules dictating that nonconference games must be played at the start of the season.

"Ideally, a rivalry that has been around this long and has been so intense and so competitive, you would like to see it continue," Whittingham said. "But will it? I guess that's anybody's guess."

Email: dirk@desnews.com

Twitter: @DirkFacer

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