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Mark A. Philbrick, Mark A. Philbrick
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said of the BYU-Utah game, despite changes in conference affiliation, "It's the same this year. It's no different."

PROVO — It's a new era in the BYU-Utah Rivalry, featuring a mid-September showdown devoid of bowl game and conference implications.

So what's at stake when the longtime, bitter rivals collide tonight (7:15 p..m., MT, ESPN2) at LaVell Edwards Stadium?

"There's a lot," said Cougar running back Bryan Kariya. "Coach (Bronco) Mendenhall really stresses that we want to win the state and beat our in-state rivals here. Especially with this being our first home game, we take a lot of pride in playing as best we can there. And, playing Utah, it's a big game and there's a lot of hype and excitement about it. There's a lot of emotion surrounding the game. It means a lot to a lot of people for us to go out there and play as well as we can. It means a lot to us to play as well as we can."

BYU (1-1), in its first season as an independent, obviously can't win a conference championship. There are only two titles for the Cougars to shoot for — a state championship and a national championship. Any hopes of an undefeated season and a national title evaporated last week in a 17-16 setback at Texas.

But a victory over Utah (1-1) would be a big step toward capturing a coveted state championship. The Cougars, who lost to both the Utes and Utah State last season, are looking to reclaim the Beehive Boot, emblematic of state supremacy.

"The Beehive Boot has been important to me ever since I've been the coach," Mendenhall said. "It's the same this year. It's no different."

When senior left tackle Matt Reynolds was asked about what's on the line in this game, he said, "Honestly, I feel like in a lot of ways nothing more than any other week. The difference is, this is our state game, basically. This is our chance to show who the better team is and that means a lot to the players and it means a lot to coach Mendenhall. In that way, this game is weighted a little heavier."

Meanwhile, the Utes, who are in their first season as members of the Pac-12, can still contend for a conference crown despite last week's close loss at USC — and regardless of what happens tonight in Provo.

But Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose history with the rivalry goes back more than three decades, knows how big this grudge match is.

"Every week is the biggest game of the year and that's how you have to approach it," he said. "Every week is a big game. This is a game, although it doesn't count in the conference standings, it's a rivalry game and every game is important, regardless of the circumstances."

Both the Utes and Cougars are coming off heart-wrenching defeats. And neither wants to open the season with a dismal 1-2 record.

"It'll just be fun to see," said Utah linebacker Chaz Walker. "Both teams are definitely hungry and definitely both teams need a win, and so it's going to be a hard-fought game and hopefully we can come out on top."

In recent history, the Utah-BYU game is where drama happens.

"The game's come down to the last play five of the last six years and (the series is) split evenly," Mendenhall said. "I'm not sure why this one would be any different. They're always contested; they're always played hard."

BYU linebacker Jameson Frazier said this year's meeting will be as fierce and intense as it usually is.

"It's still BYU-Utah. I don't think they want to lose to us, so I don't think there's any less passion than any game before," he said. "No matter what, they're going to come out swinging. It's going to be a tough one."

For the Cougars, it's an opportunity to earn a win over a team from an automatic qualifying BCS conference.

And the Cougars haven't forgotten last November's painful, last-second 17-16 loss to Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"It motivates us," said senior safety Travis Uale. "We've been thinking about it since last year because it was such a close game. Now that it's the time, we're just going to go out there and give it our best."

"We just want to get a win," Frazier said. "We want to play to the best of our ability and see what this team can do because I don't think we've reached our full potential on either side of the ball. It's another week where we get to see what we can do."

Cougars, Utes on the air

Utah (1-1)

at BYU (1-1)

Today, 7:15 p.m. MT

LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo


Radio: 102.7 FM, 1160 AM, 700 AM

email: jeffc@desnews.comContributing: Dirk Facer