All over town this week you could hear the Man On The Street discussing today's Utah-BYU football game the same way one might talk about the gulf crisis or the slumping economy or some other impending disaster. How bad will things get? The question was not a matter of WHO would win, but by HOW MUCH. The oddsmakers say 32 points. Some think that is conservative.
All perfectly understandable, says Utah coach Ron McBride, coolly. After all, the Cougars are nationally ranked and on a roll. And the Utes? They have won just four games this season - and had to rely on an absolute miracle to win one of those games and a 29-point rally to win another. In the meantime, the Utes have been beaten - and even clobbered - by teams that BYU has routed (see chart).So, really, what chance do the Utes have against the No. 4-ranked team in the nation; against a team whose quarterback is a leading Heisman Trophy candidate who, if he quit this morning, would rank as the most efficient passer in the history of the game; against a team that is averaging 49 points per game against conference opponents; against a team that leads the nation in passing, total offense and net punting and ranks second in scoring and 11th in rushing defense; against a team that is one win away from clinching another Western Athletic Conference championship and a Holiday Bowl berth; against a team that has Utah's number? . . .
The Utes lead the series 40-21-4. But since LaVell Edwards took over as head coach in 1972, BYU is 18-2 against Utah. It took seven years to beat Edwards the first time, 10 years to beat him the second time. At this rate Utah won't beat BYU again until the next century, after Edwards has retired.
If all this isn't sobering enough for the Utes, Edwards, whose team won the national championship six years ago, says, "We are playing as well now as any team we've had."
The last time the Cougars visited Salt Lake City was in 1988, and they came away with an embarrassing 57-28 loss. But then the Cougars turned last year's rematch into an even bigger rout. It was 49-0 by the second quarter, 70-31 at the final gun.
"We're going to do whatever we have to to win," says McBride of today's game.
Don't be surprised if that includes a few trick plays. This is Utah's season-finale, so why not pull all the stops? Against New Mexico last week, the Utes scored a touchdown on a double reverse and gained 17 yards with a fumblerooski play to sustain their game-winning drive.
"We have lots of tricks," says McBride. "Whether they work or not is another matter."
When the Utes upset the Cougars two years ago, at least then they had an explosive offense and a big-play quarterback with the potential of scoring outbursts and upsets. But Scott Mitchell is gone, and so is the explosive offense. The Utes have cracked the 400-yard total offense mark only three times this year. BYU averages more than that (565 yards) each time out.
Mike Richmond, Utah's Starting Quarterback of the Week, replaced the injured Mitchell against BYU last year and threw for 393 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions - but he rang up most of those numbers long after the contest was decided and BYU had called off the dogs. Still, if Richmond gets protection - a big if - he could damage the Cougars.
If there's one area in which the Utes have improved their chances against BYU, it's on defense, particularly now that linebacker Anthony Davis is healthy again. Davis and defensive end Jimmy Bellamy, with their superior quickness and athleticism, could cause the BYU offense problems. The Utah pass rush of course must get to quarterback Ty Detmer in a hurry, but only Oregon has been able to do that this season.
In any case, Utah's coaches know what they're up against.
"They're good in all phases," says McBride of the Cougars. "And it looks like they're still improving. They have no apparent weaknesses . . . It's probably the best team they've had in the time I've been around here. They're one of the best teams in the country."
"Obviously, they're an outstanding offensive team," says Greg McMackin, Utah's defensive coordinator. "They've got a quarterback who's as good as there is, and his supporting cast is excellent. Their line is big and has excellent feet. They have as good a tight end as there is. The other receivers can all catch. And they can run. They use the pass to set up the run. You can't load up in any one category. They're fairly difficult to defense. They read what you're doing, and that's why they're so good. You have to disguise things."
Overwhelming odds notwithstanding, the Utes will play hard today, say their coaches. "This is our last game," says special teams coach Sean McNabb. "We want to go out with a win." But that might be too much to ask this time around.
Compaing the scores...
Utah 10, Wyoming 28 BYU 45, Wyoming 14
Utah 13, Colo. St. 22 BYU 52, Colo. St. 9
Utah 37, UTEP 23 BYU 30, UTEP 10
Utah 21, Air Force 52 BYU 54, Air Force 7
Utah 14, San Diego 66 BYU 62, San Diego 34
Utah 29, New mexico 27 BYU 55, New Mexico 31