PROVO — BYU travels to Rice-Eccles stadium on Saturday to take on a Utah football team that is looking to rebound from its loss to Utah State last week. BYU was embarrassed by Utah last season 54-10 and subsequently seeks to show that last year was an anomaly.
As if this rivalry game needed any extra story lines. It’s BYU vs. Utah, and it's still a game that brings out a lot of emotion and typically some great and competitive football.
So how does BYU match up with Utah this season and what can fans expect come Saturday night? We looked over the match-ups and interviewed players and coaches in order to give a glimpse into what should happen.
BYU rushing attack vs. Utah
BYU rushed for 225 yards last week, and although that stat looks great unqualified, it was done against a rather porous Weber State defense. Michael Alisa was again BYU’s go-to guy in the backfield, carrying the ball twice as much as any other running back. Alisa did okay with his workload, running the ball 11 times for 53 yards.
Utah gave up 164 yards last week to Utah State on a 4.7 yards per carry average. Starting running back Kerwynn Williams ran the ball 17 times for 95 yards and a touchdown, while quarterback Chuckie Keeton ran it 17 times himself for 86 yards.
Utah boasts what is believed to be one of the best defensive fronts in the country, led by its two dominant defensive tackles Star Lotulelei (6-4, 320) and David Kruger (6-5, 300.) Lotulelei is considered by many to be the top defensive tackle in the country.
“Their defensive line is very good, and they’re always good at Utah,” said running back David Foote. “It’s going to be a challenge to run it against them because they‘re so good — they‘re probably the best defensive front we‘ve faced so far this year.”
At linebacker, Utah has a load of talent but isn't as experienced as the line it backs up. Outside linebacker Trevor Reilly (6-5, 245) is the most experienced Ute linebacker, and Dave Fagergren (6-0, 225) is Utah's leading tackler at the other outside position.
Cougar question marks
While BYU has been relatively effective running the ball off-tackle, it’s struggled mounting an effective attack up the middle. Offensive line coach Mark Weber tried a bunch of different interior line combinations, and it’s apparent that the Cougars lack some consistency there as a result.
Utah’s defensive strength is with its two interior linemen, leading to a lot of question marks surrounding how effective BYU’s interior offensive line can be in providing a consistent running attack up the middle.
“The key is to be assignment sound,” said Foote. “We need to make sure that we’re completing our blocking assignments and that we follow our blocks effectively. We came out a little bit slow against Weber State last week, and we need to start out better and establish a good running attack from the very start.”
It should be some tough-sledding for BYU up the middle of Utah’s defense, but look for it to try and exploit Utah off-tackle. BYU has found most of its early success running the ball off-tackle, and Utah looks more exploitable there than in the interior.
Overall, it’s tough to prescribe much overall success for BYU in its ground game, and look for Utah to hold BYU to under 100 yards rushing. Utah has a lot of talent among its front seven defenders, and look for it to galvanize its overall effort after a somewhat porous effort against the Aggies.
BYU passing attack vs. Utah
Riley Nelson attempted 29 passes in his one half of play last week against Weber State — far more attempts than most thought would be necessary. This was largely a result of BYU surprisingly being neutralized with its ground game for much of that first half.
Cody Hoffman was back in action last week and looked like his old self, collecting seven receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown in largely just one half of work. Ross Apo missed the Weber State game but will look to provide good play opposite Hoffman against the Utes.
The Utes gave up 216 yards passing last week in a 22-32 effort by Keeton. Utah corners look solid, but there are some questions at safety with Brian Blechen serving out a three-game suspension and Eric Rowe unlikely to play due to injury, although he’s still listed as Utah’s starting safety.
Rowe will be replaced by either Tyron Morris-Edward (6-1, 200, sophomore) or Terrell Reese (6-0, 205, sophomore) at free safety, while Quade Chappuis (5-11, 198, junior) will continue to spell Blechen at strong safety.
Utah poses two quality pass rushers at defensive end in Joe Kruger (6-7, 280, junior) and Nate Fakahafua (6-3, 250, sophomore). Trevor Reilly will be used at end during some pass rushing situations, and he wreaked havoc with his pass rush against BYU last season.
Utah will run a lot of man coverage and should attempt to jam BYU’s receivers consistently off the line, which has led to success in past years.
"They run a lot of man, but they've been playing a lot more zone this year it seems," said Nelson. "Like always, they have a lot of talent at defensive back, and we'll have our work cut out for us."
Cougar question marks
Will quarterback Riley Nelson stay composed and stay away from his tendency to throw wounded ducks off his back foot? Nelson has made a living off of improvising, which can be a big boon or a big bust. He threw his share of passes against Weber last week that should have been picked off, and against Utah, those same passes will likely be picked off and could even turn into pick sixes. Nelson has to avoid his tendency to play outside of his ability and avoid throwing up desperate passes off of his back foot or against his body.
To Nelson’s credit, he seems to fully understand the need to stay composed.
“I need to be poised and calm and just execute our game plan,” said Nelson. “I need to get the ball out of my hand on time if I can get my pre-snap reads and my post-snap reads and deliver the ball on time and quickly, hopefully I don’t give those guys a lot of opportunities to hit me. I also need to make sure that I avoid making dumb and inaccurate throws.”
Avoiding turnovers is the biggest key to BYU’s offensive success and to BYU’s success overall. BYU needs to be patient with its running attack and in taking what the Utah defense gives it. Look for Nelson to largely stay within the offense, but also expect him to throw up some ill-advised passes outside of the pocket that could go for boons or busts. You don’t change your stripes as a player regardless of the opponent.
Cougar rush defense vs. Utah
BYU allowed a surprising amount of yardage by Weber State last week on the ground after stalemating Washington State for -5 yards rushing. CJ Tuckett, Weber’s starting tailback, had 80 yards on just 12 carries last week.
Utah has struggled to provide a consistent running attack so far this season, which is surprising given it returns star running back John White. The problems exist mostly along Utah’s offensive front which, like BYU’s front, hasn’t provided much of a push upfront during its two contests.
John White may not play on Saturday, but his status won’t be known until game time. Should White not play, or at least be limited, Utah will likely rely on freshman Jarrell Oliver (5-8, 210) and junior college transfer Kelvin York (5-11, 223.)
Cougar question marks
BYU has yet to be tested by a solid rushing attack this season. While Utah has struggled with its ground game, it should provide the sternest test for BYU’s front to date.
BYU has used a variety of different personnel and different looks along its defensive front this season to keep opposing offenses off-balance. This has worked well in defending the pass, but it’s questionable how effective a two-man front or the use of pass-rushing standouts, such as Ezekial Ansah and Bronson Kaufusi, will be in defending a consistent run attack.
“When Utah rushes for 100 yards, they win and when teams hold them to under 100 yards, then teams have a good chance to beat them,” said linebacker Brandon Ogletree. “We’re always a defense that focuses on stopping the run first, and that will be our focus against Utah. They have a really good running back, and we’re expecting him to play, but if he doesn’t, then we know they’ll have some capable guys to replace him, so our mentality doesn’t change if (John White) plays or if he doesn’t.”
BYU hasn’t been severely tested on the ground so far this season, but look for the Utah offense to test BYU’s ability to defend the run come Saturday night. The Cougars should prove equal to the task with three experienced down linemen (Russell Tialavea, Romney Fuga and Eathyn Manumaleuna) and two senior linebackers (Uona Kaveinga and Brandon Ogletree.) BYU does have some depth issues along its defensive front, and if Utah sees initial success running up the middle, then the Cougars could find some trouble.
Cougar pass defense vs. Utah
BYU fields what is believed to be its most-talented secondary since 1996. It’s a pass defense that saw a lot of success in 2011 and returns most of the players from that group while adding the stellar initial play of cornerback Jordan Johnson.
The Cougar pass defense allowed just 96 yards through the air against Weber last week, although most wouldn’t consider the Wildcats as much of a stern test in that regard.
Utah will likely start quarterback John Hays, although there has been talk of starting freshman Travis Wilson. Hays has struggled with his accuracy and completed just 12 of 26 passes last week against Utah State for 5.9 yards per attempt.
Utah always fields receivers that can beat a defense on any given play, and this year is no different. The receiving corps is led by returning players DeVonte Christopher (6-1, 200), Luke Mathews (6-2, 205) and Dres Anderson (6-1, 185.) Kenneth Scott (6-3, 202) was the big play-maker against the Aggies and will look to reprise that role against BYU.
Tight end looks strong with Jake Murphy (6-4, 252) and David Rolf (6-4, 250) showing well with their ability to make plays down the field.
Cougar question marks
BYU has proven effective rushing the quarterback so far this season and will need to keep the pressure on to limit Utah’s opportunities down the field. BYU has done this by presenting unbalanced defensive fronts and a variety of blitz packages.
Free safety Joe Sampson has shown well in providing over-the-top coverage but will need to remain disciplined as does strong safety Daniel Sorensen in not allowing for big plays over the top of the pass coverage.
“Utah has big-time playmakers, and we saw a lot of big plays being made last year, that’s for sure,” said Ogletree. “The key is to not get outside of what we do and to just stay disciplined with our assignments. We know that Utah will bring everything at us, and we just need to be ready for that. The key is just to trust others to keep their assignments while just focusing on what you need to do and knowing that others will do what they need to do.”
Utah should have some opportunities for big plays given how aggressive Bronco Mendenhall will likely be with his scheming. You saw a conservative approach against Weber, but look for Mendenhall to go back to what was so effective against Washington State — a variety of defensive looks and blitzes that kept the WSU offense off-balance.
Whether John Hays or Travis Wilson can take advantage of big-play opportunities certainly is in question, but look for Utah to beat BYU deep on a couple of occasions. Utah will attempt to test BYU in the flats with bubble screens and smoke screens — an area that BYU has historically been weak in defending. With very capable outside linebackers and cornerbacks, the Cougars should prove better able to defend laterally.
All signs point to a defensive struggle in this one. Utah’s defense is very talented and should rebound from its subpar performance last week, while BYU will field its most capable defensive unit since 1996. With question marks around both offensive attacks, this game should prove to be low-scoring and hard-hitting.
Look for BYU to bring a much better mentality to the field under quarterback Riley Nelson, which should lead to a close, hard-fought victory. Utah usually takes the field with the mental edge in these games, but look for the Cougars to bridge that gap this time around along with proving able to defend better against many of the plays that Utah has killed BYU with in the past.
Score: BYU 20, Utah 17
Email: email@example.com Twitter: @BrandonCGurney
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company