The whole state considers it the Super Bowl. —BYU senior linebacker Kyle Van Noy
PROVO — This much is certain: this is not just another game, and this is not just another week.
When BYU collides with Utah, the Beehive State pays attention. Everyone, it seems, chooses a side. This game divides work places, neighborhoods, and families.
“The whole state considers it the Super Bowl," said Cougar senior linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
So how do BYU players and coaches deal with the hype, the expectations, and the pressure during Rivalry Week?
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall tries to keep his players insulated from outside influences.
“It’s so difficult,” he said. “We try to keep them sequestered in our building as much as possible, studying film and having extra meetings. If they stop to have a milkshake, it’s the game. If they go to their class, they’re asked about it. There’s no way around it. We try to have them trust us as the source of what’s going to help them be successful, rather than listen to what other people have to say.
“So many people care about it, and (the players) can’t get around it," Mendenhall continued. "We find players taking naps here in the building and staying here longer. It’s a sanctuary. It’s not just another game because of the rivalry, but they’re routine is normal. They’d rather be here when the outside world doesn’t treat it as normal.”
As for himself, Mendenhall said, the interest in his program is “turned up about 10-fold during this week.”
Mendenhall understands that the outcome of the BYU-Utah game has a long-lasting impact.
“It lasts longer because of the people in the state, neighbors and friends and family members, they love to watch the game and talk about it until the next year,” he said. “It’s what makes the game not just another game but unique and special. Rivalry games are unique and special.”
One concern, of course, is that the off-the-field hype affects how players perform in the game. Some players have struggled to manage their emotions.
BYU graduate assistant Andrew George, who caught the game-winning pass in the 2009 victory over Utah, has shared his rivalry experiences with the players, particularly how to handle everything that surrounds it.
“There’s so much hype and so much that is built up in the community about this game,” he said. “It can be way blown out of proportion as a player and you almost don’t even realize it until you’re a junior or senior. As someone who’s been in that rivalry pretty recently, it’s something I’m trying to get my players to understand, particularly the younger guys. If you build this thing up too much in your minds, you’re going to make way more mistakes than you want to make. You’ll be way too caught up in it. For my guys, I just tell them it’s about us, it’s not about them. It is a rivalry game. It’s not like any other game. But if we take care of our job, if we take care of our piece of the pie and individually do their job, it’s not going to matter who we’re playing. If they can see that as a young player, it will benefit them even more.”
For sophomore quarterback Taysom Hill, it’s important to focus on the things he can control.
“For me, it comes down to playing another football game,” Hill said. “This comes with a little more pressure and anxiety. It’s another football game. We need to prepare like we did against Texas (the Cougars beat the Longhorns, 41-20 on Sept. 7), if not better. It’s another game. Going into a rivalry game, it’s the team that settles down first and makes the least amount of mistakes. That’s our emphasis.”
BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who has been both a player and a coach in this rivalry, said it all begins with preparation.
“Your emotions you manage while you prepare,” he said. “You can’t sustain a whole week of rage. You’ve got to prepare with skill, commitment and hard work. That translates to the game on Saturday.”
With the rivalry taking a two-year break after Saturday’s game, there won’t be another week like this — Rivalry Week — until 2016.