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photos by Scott G. Winterton, Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Since taking over their respective programs in 2005, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall have split six head-to-head meetings. Five of the rivalry games have been decided by a touchdown, two went into overtime and the overall point differential is just 20 points.

"Not only have the games been split 3-3, five of the six have come down to the last play, and I'm not sure what other rivalry in the country has something like that happening," Mendenhall said. "But it makes for, I think, a great game and a great setting."

The next installment of the tightly contested series is Saturday night in Provo. It'll be the earliest meeting in a season between Utah and BYU, who traditionally met in late-November before the Utes joined the Pac-12 and the Cougars opted for football independence.

While it remains to be seen how it may ultimately affect the rivalry, the Mendenhall-Whittingham era couldn't be any more competitive.

"It's probably as exciting now as it's ever been and maybe more so," Whittingham said before addressing the 3-3 split. "That's been the nature of this rivalry for a lot of years now. It's been back-and-forth. It's been very lopsided one way or the other throughout the history of the rivalry, but I'm pretty sure the last 15 or so years have been the most competitive as far as back-and-forth."

The past 24 games, as a matter of fact, have resulted in 12 victories for each team.

"If you come out on the right end of the score, it's fun; if not, it's not-so-fun. So I would say it really boils down to the outcome," Whittingham said. "But as you reflect back and look at the body of work over the past several years, it's been a very intense, competitive situation."

Especially since Mendenhall and Whittingham have served as head coaches.

"I think that we're both very competitive, very intense and driven and want the best for our programs," Mendenhall said.

As such, they've maintained a professional relationship, but nothing close to the friendship LaVell Edwards and Ron McBride developed during their head-to-head battles.

"It takes a pretty unique personality or set of personalities to make it kind of go beyond profession, which I think both LaVell and Ron McBride had," Mendenhall said. "I think it's 'A' typical, but I think it's ideal and I think Kyle and I, we just kind of ended up having it being professional is how it's best managed."

They share similar backgrounds in terms of being defensive-minded coaches, Mendenhall noted, and they've kind of instilled what he said are "just tough and competitive teams."

Whittingham said it's fair to say there's a sense of mutual respect.

Both coaches, however, acknowledged the rivalry game and its close finishes can be taxing.

"They take their toll, I can tell you that much. But it's been great competition," Whittingham said. "It's why you're in the profession — to compete. These games have been as competitive and as exciting as it gets."

While noting that one-point games against Mississippi and Texas have already been taxing, Mendenhall noted that a rivalry game and in-state implications probably magnify things. To what degree, though, is hard to measure.

"It takes a day or two to recover," he said before adding the early season meeting may change things.

"It'll be unique now to see, No. 1, how the game plays out and then, with so much of the season left, what toll that takes, if anything different."

Rivalry Game at a glance:

Mendenhall-Whittingham era

2010 — UTAH 17, BYU 16: At Salt Lake City, Brandon Burton blocked a 42-yard field goal attempt by Mitch Payne in the final play of the game.

Whittingham: "That's football and that's the way this series has gone. There's been so many dramatic events occur in the series, and tonight was just another chapter in the story."

Mendenhall: "It was a hard-fought game that came down to the last play and we just couldn't make it happen."

2009 — BYU 26, UTAH 23 (OT): At Provo, Andrew George scored the game-winning touchdown on a 25-yard pass from quarterback Max Hall in overtime, reaching the end zone on the last play of the contest.

Mendenhall: "Both programs really care about this rivalry. The fans certainly do. For it to come down to overtime, it was the perfect scenario, I think, for a great college rivalry."

Whittingham: "We came up a little short. Credit them for making the plays."

2008 — UTAH 48, BYU 24: At Salt Lake City, The Utes secured their second Bowl Championship Series berth in five seasons by doubling up the Cougars in the regular-season finale to go 12-0. Utah intercepted four passes and recovered a fumble.

Whittingham: "I couldn't be more proud of the guys on this team. We had a great season."

Mendenhall: "I think that without the turnovers it would have been a completely different game."

2007 — BYU 17, UTAH 10: At Provo, Max Hall connected on a 49-yard completion to Austin Collie on fourth-and-18 with just over one minute remaining to keep what proved to be the game-winning drive alive and erase a 10-9 deficit. Harvey Unga eventually capped the series off with an 11-yard touchdown run with 38 seconds left to play.

Mendenhall: "I'm really proud of our team and the way they fought back. The fourth-and-18 with Max Hall and Austin Collie was unbelievable."

Whittingham: "It was a tough loss obviously and it was tough to swallow ... It came down to the wire just like last year and unfortunately it went the other way."

2006 — BYU 33, UTAH 31: At Salt Lake City, John Beck's 11-yard touchdown pass to Jonny Harline capped another thriller that came down to the last play of the game. The winning play ended well after time expired.

Mendenhall: "For the last two years, you've seen two teams fight their hearts out and have it come down to the last play. I think it is a tribute to both teams. It's a great thing for our state."

Whittingham: "It was a tough, emotional game and a tough one to lose ... We got beat by a very good football team with a good quarterback."

2005 — UTAH 41, BYU 34 (OT): At Provo, Brett Ratliff's 25-yard touchdown pass to Travis LaTendresse on the second play of overtime proved to be the difference for the Utes. The Cougars' chance to counter ended with two short runs and a pair of incomplete passes as Utah employed a "circus defense."

Whittingham: "It's the sweetest victory I've ever been a part of. I could not be more proud of a football team."

Mendenhall: "Two teams fought. Two teams competed. Two teams laid it on the line. What else can you want from an instate rivalry?"

Email: dirk@desnews.com

Twitter: @DirkFacer