BYU football: Rivalry game not for MWC title, but plenty on the line
PROVO — Because of TCU's dominance this season — and barring an unforeseen loss by the No. 4 Horned Frogs to one-win New Mexico — Saturday's annual grudge match between No. 18 BYU and No. 22 Utah doesn't have any Mountain West Conference championship implications.
No perfect seasons, no Bowl Championship Series berths are on the line, either.
Still, there's no doubt that this rivalry, which features the Cougars and Utes sporting identical 9-2 records going into this year's showdown in Provo, has never seen so much collective success for both programs simultaneously over such a sustained period of time.
Two years ago, both teams had eight wins and were riding seven-game winning streaks. BYU's 17-10 win helped propel the Cougars to an outright Mountain West Conference championship.
A year ago, the two teams had a combined record of 21-1 — the best-ever in rivalry history. The Utes' 48-24 victory clinched an outright league title and a berth in the Sugar Bowl.
This season, these two teams appear to be evenly matched. Saturday's game marks only the third time ever both teams are ranked going into the contest.
BYU and Utah suffered their first respective losses on the same day, Sept. 19 — the Cougars at home to Florida State and the Utes at Oregon. And, of course, both teams fell to TCU — BYU lost at home, 38-7, while Utah was beaten on the road, 55-28.
After the Cougars defeated Air Force, 38-21, last Saturday, coach Bronco Mendenhall asked his players not to talk about the Utah game until today.
"We'll worry about that next week," said tight end Dennis Pitta. "We're going to enjoy this win right now. Come Monday, that will be a work day for (the) Utah (game)."
Here are a few of the intriguing subplots surrounding this year's showdown:
BYU has won three of the last four meetings when starting a senior quarterback.
The Cougars have a senior in Max Hall, who became the winningest QB in school history last Saturday. He now has 30 wins, surpassing Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer. Hall will be looking for redemption against the Utes after throwing five interceptions, and coughing up a fumble, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2008.
The Cougars trailed 27-24 going into the fourth quarter, then watched the Utes convert turnovers into 21 fourth-quarter points.
Hall's counterpart is Utah true freshman Jordan Wynn, who has made only three career starts.
BYU is playing at home on Saturday, but the Utes have won two out of the last three meetings at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The Cougars entered the season riding an 18-game home winning streak that was shattered with that setback to Florida State. Later came that blowout loss to TCU. But BYU got back to winning at home against Air Force.
"I think we were able to play with a lot of emotion, and that was a big factor," Pitta said. "That helped us throughout the game. It kept the crowd in it and helped us get a big win at home."
BYU running back Harvey Unga, who gained 67 yards to become the school's all-time leading rusher in the win over the Falcons, is still nursing a sprained ankle, but he said he'll be ready for the Utes.
"It feels good. I'll be good to go. It's a little sore. But my ankle has never not been sore after games. I'll be fine."
Unga has played a huge role in both BYU-Utah games he's played. Two years ago, he rushed for 141 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown with 38 seconds remaining. Last season, Unga rushed 15 times for 116 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to the Utes.
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