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BYU, Utah Utes football: Rivalry game changed on 1 day

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 9:20 p.m. MDT

Maybe it was irony, coincidence or fate. Or perhaps it was the schedule-makers.

Whatever the reason, the respective football seasons of BYU and Utah took dramatic turns on the same day — Nov. 6.

Just weeks ago, Utah was riding high with an 8-0 record and a top-5 ranking. BYU was limping along with an abysmal 2-5 record. At the time, the annual rivalry game looked like it was going to be the biggest mismatch in years.

But perceptions of the two programs began to change on the afternoon of Nov. 6. That's when the Cougars blasted UNLV, 55-7, at LaVell Edwards Stadium, and the then-No. 5 Utes were walloped by No. 3 TCU, 47-7, at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

BYU followed that up with a 49-10 rout of Colorado State on the road. Utah, suffering a hangover from the Plague of Frogs, was overwhelmed at Notre Dame, 28-3. In two weeks, the Utes, who were gunning for a shot at the national championship, or at least the Rose Bowl, had suddenly been beaten by a combined score of 75-10.

Then, last weekend, the Cougars took care of business against lowly New Mexico, 40-7, to extend their winning streak to four straight, while the Utes snapped their two-game losing streak with a dramatic 38-34 win over San Diego State.

Which sets up an intriguing showdown Saturday when BYU and Utah meet at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"It's something that's been building up and building up to the last of the season," said Utah kicker Joe Phillips. "I think whether we were undefeated at this point, or where we are now, I think it's as big of a game as it would be."

While the Utes are 10-point favorites, this year's grudge match could be another nail-biter. In the last 13 games, only two have been decided by more than seven points. Most have been closer, including BYU's 26-23 overtime win last year in Provo.

"Any time this game is played, for the most part, it's usually a really good game," said BYU safety Andrew Rich. "I think we've made progress as a team. We're playing at a level where we can compete. We're going to have to work our hardest in practice this week to be able to do that. (Utah is) a good team."

The Utes are happy to go into this weekend's contest on the heels of a win.

"It was a big boost. We hadn't lost two games in a row for three years or something like that," said coach Kyle Whittingham. "It's something our guys were unfamiliar with and to get back on track was huge. Going into this last game on a three-game skid would have been a big downer. So it was big for a lot of different reasons."

The Cougars know something about losing streaks, as earlier this season they dropped four straight games, culminating with a humbling setback at Utah State.

In recent weeks, BYU has feasted on bad teams, like Utah did before facing TCU.

Mendenhall is grateful for a tough early-season schedule, even though his team's 1-4 start wasn't "very much fun. But some of the lessons that had to be learned, and some of the decisions that had to be made wouldn't have happened without the struggles and at that level.

"There are struggles, and then there is being 1-4. That kind of puts you in a deeper place where you have to look and say, 'Okay, what exactly do we have to do?' So I think it was essential even though our record won't be one that will be dominant this year."

What has been the key to BYU's dramatic improvement in recent weeks?

"They're running the football effectively, getting about 175 yards a week rushing, which is a great starting point," Whittingham said. "If you have a run game, then everything else seems to fall in place.

"The quarterback has gotten better each week. He's a true freshman. You can see the maturation process of Jake Heaps throughout the last several weeks.

"They're playing solid defense," Whittingham said. "They're playing good defense and good special teams. So I think it's a combination of (things). As every program hopes, throughout the course of the year to get better each week, I think they've done that."

e-mail: jeffc@desnews.com

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