PROVO — Even before Utah defeated BYU by 44 points, the 2011 rivalry game felt different.
Without a doubt, there was less hype. There was less urgency and less animosity. Even the trash-talking among fans was more lighthearted, less venomous.
Fairly obvious reasons accounted for some of that difference.
It's a non-conference game, which means in some critical ways, it means less. Losing, however, is never on the agenda of any good team. It's also nothing a fan wants to endure.
But this isn't just another preseason game. The beauty of a rivalry is that it's about more than stats and scores. It's about being a part of something that unites people and brings them joy. It's about cheering for the team your father loved or against the team to which your brother is devoted. Pride makes the game important to a community, regardless of how the rest of the world sees it.
Fans filing into LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday said they felt like there was less attention paid to the rivalry but assumed that was because for the first time in decades, the game was being played in September rather than November.
To them, it meant a lot not just that the two teams were going to continue to play (for at least another year), but because having in-state bragging rights has always been as much or more meaningful to those who watch from the stands than it is to players or coaches.
So the question then becomes, if this season's rivalry game felt different, what were the reasons? Could it mean that fans and players were toning down the rhetoric? Was it a sign that the biggest rivalry game in the state was losing steam? Was this the beginning of a slow death for a now-irrelevant game? Or was it simply that no one knew what to expect with two teams now fighting for glory in separate, although somewhat interdependent, universes?
Only time will tell for sure, but 2011 was certainly different.
"It did all week," said Utah athletic director Chris Hill of the changed feelings. "I'd be less than honest if I didn't say it was different."
He balked when asked if it was less important.
"It's always important when you play," he said. "It's just different. Not quite the same hype in the office all week. I mean people were excited, but it was just different."
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged there were differences coming into Saturday's game, which the team discussed during fall camp.
"It was a different feel until the ball was in the air," he said. "And then once you're in rivalry mode, it's rivalry mode."
For the athletes who actually become a part of the lore, the game was every bit the thrill it has always been — even for those who were playing in their first rivalry game.
"I knew the environment was going to be wild," said receiver Dres Anderson.
Bingham's Harvey Langi grew up soaked in the passion of the rivalry. But playing for one side was a new experience.
"It was beautiful," said Utah's freshman running back. "Coming up here in this environment, with all my brothers, there is nothing like it. It was exciting."
And junior college transfer John White lV, who'd listened to stories of what to expect, was not disappointed.
"I want to play another one of these games," he said. "This is not what I expected it to be. I've been in rivalry games before in high school. It's never been like this before."
Whittingham referred to the fears many of us have about the possibility that changes in conference alignment will eventually mean the death of one of the oldest college football rivalries in the country.
"Looking forward, who knows if this is going to continue?" he said. "With scheduling problems and conference realignments ?— (schools) are applying to other conferences. There is a lot that's going to transpire. We know right now for sure that we have a contract for next year."
Whittingham said he'd leave the decision about whether to continue playing the game to Hill.
"Whatever is best for our program," he said when asked if he wanted it to continue playing the game that has been played since 1922 — except for 1943-45 because of World War II.
The reality is that because conferences are still shifting, the uncertainty of who will be playing where extends to a contest that has become the biggest sports day in Utah.
I hope the rivalry survives, and maybe even evolves into something that's less toxic. I think it's a critical part of the fabric of college football. It unites people for many reasons and gives them a moment of joy and elation that belongs to everyone who's ever gone to the school or supported its effort.
Watching fans dig out that blue or red sweatshirt, old jersey or brand new team T-shirt and reunite with friends and family to debate and worry about whether a young quarterback's arm is everything it was billed to be instead of jobs or bills or illness for just a few hours is an escape every community should be lucky enough to enjoy.
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