PROVO — The way BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall sees it, the outcome of the rivalry game against Utah comes down to one simple thing.
"We win if we hold on to the ball, and we lose if we don't," he said this week. "It really is that cut-and-dried. So hopefully, we hold on to the ball."
Recent history, and statistics, certainly back him up on that assertion.
The Cougars, who didn't hold on to the ball in last season's 54-10 loss against the Utes, invade Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday (8 p.m., MDT, ESPN2). BYU had an astonishing seven turnovers a year ago — one interception and six fumbles — at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
On the Cougars' third play from scrimmage, a bad snap to quarterback Jake Heaps resulted in a Ute fumble recovery and quick touchdown, setting the tone for the game. That was the first of three turnovers in the first quarter, and it only got worse for BYU from there.
The turnover trend has been one of the key determinants in the BYU-Utah game — in the Cougars' three victories over the Utes since Mendenhall became the head coach in 2005, they have had only two turnovers.
However, in BYU's four losses, the Cougars have turned the ball over 18 times, including six giveaways in a 48-24 defeat in 2008.
The Utes, of course, understand the importance of winning the turnover margin battle.
"That's always a plan of emphasis going into every game but especially when you go against BYU," said Utah defensive lineman Star Lotulelei. "To get the upper hand, you have to play great defense. That's one of our plans to win, so the defense has to go into this game and play hard. We've got to get those turnovers and help the team out."
Cougar quarterback Riley Nelson, who coughed up the sixth and final fumble late in the 2011 game, resulting in Utah's final TD, felt bad for BYU's defense that day.
"They played really well and we kept giving (Utah) the ball back and the defense kept having to defend short fields, then big play after big play," Nelson recalled this week. "It's disheartening. As much as you want to be the guy who scratches and claws to the very end, the threshold is only so high. As an offense, we hope to take care of the ball. We trust in our defense to make plays. And if we can take care of the ball and put together drives, I feel that will put us in a position to win the game towards the end."
So far this season, BYU has had two turnovers, and both came in last week's win over Weber State. Wide receiver Cody Hoffman fumbled after catching a pass deep in Wildcat territory. Later, Nelson scrambled out of the pocket and threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted.
"Oh, man. It was a bad decision on my part," Nelson said after the game. "I mean, I won't do that again from here on out. That was dumb. No reason to do it."
Before practice on Monday, Mendenhall and his team watched last year's seven-turnover performance against Utah.
"I could hardly remember it," he said. "I remembered about three or four plays that worked against us, but I had forgotten about all of the turnovers. In the world of coaching, even after a win like on Saturday, the thoughts of a coach are already on the next week. Past lessons are learned and moved on from."
Nelson is hoping his team can show those lessons have been learned.
"In preparation for this game, we're watching film from last year," he said. "Guys see it and obviously it leaves a bad taste in their mouth. It's not so much as an emotional motivator, but just from a learning standpoint. OK, we made these and these mistakes, now let's not make them again."
Cougar running back David Foote would like nothing more than to have a turnover-free effort on Saturday.
"You don't dwell on the past. We're a completely different team this year," he said. "We're looking forward to this great opportunity we have to go up there. We look forward to it. We're different, and we've got to go execute."
Contributing: Dirk Facer