Will Kalani Sitake’s new regime make a major difference in the BYU-Utah rivalry now he’s returned to Provo?
Or has this whole thing completely turned in a way that’s officially a trend, a cyclical phenomenon with five straight Utah wins with no downturn in sight?
The situation sort of reminds me of a light conversation I had with retired East Bay head golf professional Kean Ridd after the first round of the Utah Open at Riverside Country Club two weeks ago.
Ridd had just finished his 18 and was riding in a cart with his wife Jan near the clubhouse. “My goal when I teed off was to just make the cut,” said Ridd. “Then, after a while, it was to just break 80. Late on the back nine, it was to just keep it in the fairway.”
Has BYU’s 0-5 effort with Utah of late come to that? To just try to keep it in the fairway?
Well, if you believe some pundits in the market, yes, the Utes and their Pac-12 patch have elevated that program to the extent it has clearly surpassed BYU after a Top 10 ranking last season. Utah, they assert, has recruited more talent, put more players in the NFL, its offensive line is dominating, its defensive front four is so deep the second-string could start for any other team in the league and the Ute secondary is so athletic, the corners could turn off the light in a room and jump in bed before light fades to darkness.
On paper, the record doesn’t lie. Utah has been sharper, more motivated, executed better, made more plays when it counted; Utah’s had solid game plans, played better defense, caught the Cougars more times on trick plays and celebrated harder. They’ve bought bragging rights with a deep-pocket bank account.
Advantage Kyle Whittingham.
On the other hand, only one of the last six games has been a blowout, that 54-10 Utah win in 2011. Throw that one out and the average difference in the other past five games is four points dating back to BYU’s 26-23 win in LaVell Edwards Stadium.
As Taysom Hill said after the 2013 loss to Utah, a 20-13 final, “I need to get better.”
The Cougars do need to get better. Period. And the well-documented number that has made the biggest difference is Utah’s huge advantage in turnover margin. Utah has a 25-6 advantage the last seven games dating back to 2008.
For the Cougars, that’s the difference. Period.
Last December in Las Vegas, BYU had five turnovers, including two Ute pick-six plays in the opening minutes that led to a 35-28 Utah win. BYU outgained Utah 386 to 197 in total yards. Didn’t matter.
In 2013, BYU outgained Utah 443 to 402 and lost 20-13, the difference being a called-back Adam Hine kickoff return for a TD on a holding penalty. Yardage advantage didn’t matter.
In 2012, the Cougars outgained Utah 312 to 245 and lost 24-21 because of five fumbles, one lost and an interception. A game-tying field goal by BYU in the end bounced off the upright. Yardage advantage didn’t matter.
In 2010, the Cougars and Utes had nearly identical offensive numbers, BYU had 293 and Utah 296. But Utah won the game when it blocked a game-winning field goal attempt at the end. Yardage didn’t matter.
More big plays, those takeaways, well, it is clearly the key feature Utah’s enjoyed in its recent dominance.
Some could argue that there's a talent deficit. Others would say it is a coaching feature, a matter of concentration and focus that the Utes have maintained in this streak.
Still others might postulate Utah’s preparation emotionally has been superior.
Some might say these close wins or losses have come down to mere luck, that there have been fluke plays that ended up leading to wins on both sides.
Regardless, this series has proved to be extremely entertaining and a close, hard-fought game that usually goes down to the wire. We saw it in Las Vegas after Utah jumped to a 35-0 lead, then came down to a final possession in a 35-28 Ute win.
There’s a piece of debate fodder here for everyone. And you know what, whichever argument they pick, they’d be right.
After watching Sitake and his staff the past nine months, one thing is not debatable. Sitake is not going into this game hoping to just keep it in the fairway.
It has not come to that.
Sitake brings a new perspective, a different approach, a whole lot of new faces on staff, not one of them strangers to the rivalry. All have played or coached in this rivalry game. There are no adoptees. It could make some differences.
And Utah’s got a cleat on the collective neck of the Cougars and doesn't plan on moving the foot.
This will be a fun one.