PROVO — For the first time in the long and storied history of the BYU-Utah football rivalry, the two programs are facing each other in the season opener — and for the first time in the month of August.
The Cougars and Utes collide Thursday, Aug. 29, at 8:15 p.m. at LaVell Edwards Stadium on ESPN.
From BYU’s perspective, it’s the ideal way to kick off the 2019 campaign after squandering a 27-7 lead late in the third quarter and suffering a heartbreaking 35-27 setback at Rice-Eccles Stadium last November as No. 17 Utah scored 28 unanswered points over the final 16 minutes.
Oh, and it also marked the Cougars’ eighth consecutive loss to the Utes.
Hosting Utah in the season opener, with a chance to avenge that painful defeat, has affected BYU’s preparation for the season.
Because that meltdown against the Utes is fresh on the Cougars’ minds, it has served as a motivator for their bowl game (a 49-18 victory over Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), spring ball and the entire offseason.
“It’s definitely motivating,” said BYU quarterback Zach Wilson. “I never want to lose to those guys again.”
For the Cougar coaching staff, there are no worries about players looking ahead to Utah. That's because it's the next game.
“Now we can bring up the University of Utah all that we want,” said assistant head coach Ed Lamb.
Opening the season at home against Utah would seem to play in BYU’s favor. But the Utes, who are expected to be nationally ranked going into this game, are the Pac-12 South favorites and have their eyes set on capturing a Pac-12 title and making their first appearance in the Rose Bowl.
“Our schedule (as an independent) is always front-loaded, where we have a lot of tough teams at the beginning,” said Cougar tight end Matt Bushman. “But to have a rival and such a big opponent in the first game, we have nothing to lose. They have everything to lose. They’re a candidate for the College Football Playoff if they have a good season. If we beat them in that first game, their hopes of that might be lost. For us, it’s 'Why not go out there and beat these guys and every team on our schedule?'”
“I’m so excited. We’ve played some big-time teams. We know that we can play with anybody in the nation. Having Utah come back and win was very frustrating and left a very bitter taste,” said BYU senior safety Austin Lee, who played one season at Utah as a freshman in 2015. “It was something you don’t want. But it’s motivated us to have a very good game for Western Michigan and it’s put more motivation into the season. Everything we do is for the purpose of beating Utah in game one. Everything we’ve done has been to prepare for that. We’ve had player-run practices. We’ve watched film sessions as a unit. We have lifts and runs. Every time we ask ourselves, 'Is that good enough to beat Utah? Is that good enough to reach our goals and be a top 25 team and be bowl eligible and make a New Year’s Six Bowl?’ Everything we’ve done is with a purpose and with excitement. Having lost to Utah before, it’s just put more fuel in the tank.”
BYU quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick, who was part of coach Kyle Whittingham’s staff at Utah from 2005-2016, is also looking forward to this showdown.
“Yeah, let’s go. Can’t wait. It’s a big game,” he said. “It’s a huge game. It always will be. It’s not just another game. Doesn’t matter where it’s played on the schedule. It’s a big deal to them and it’s a big deal to us. I’ve been on both sides. It’s fun. You might as well play it now.”
BYU coach Kalani Sitake knows the challenge that Utah poses.
“You have to give Utah a lot of credit for coming back. They are great team. Everyone is expecting them to win the Pac-12," he said. "There have been statements saying this is one of the most talented teams that they’ve had ever at Utah. What a great opportunity for us to be in. I think we’re sitting in a really good spot right now.”
But what will it take for BYU to snap that ignominious losing streak to Utah?
In last year’s collapse against the Utes, depth was a factor. The Cougars lost two key players, linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi and running back Matt Hadley, to injuries in the second half, which was game-changing for BYU. The Cougars have bolstered their depth at the running back position going into this season, recently signing grad transfers Ty’Son Williams and Emmanuel Esukpa.
Besides that, BYU learned other important lessons from that loss. The Cougars jumped out to a 20-0 halftime lead before being outscored 35-7 in the second half.
It was surreal for BYU when it owned a 20-point lead in the third quarter.
“It was really exciting to get up on them like that. To hear the crowd go quiet, to see people leave, was something that was exciting,” Lee said. “Whatever it may have been, obviously when things got closer, you started thinking, ‘Uh oh,’ and we kind of panicked a little bit. We’ve got to learn from those mistakes. Things can turn around really quick and we’ve got to be prepared for them. Everybody’s got to be prepared to play the game. That’s a big thing we’ve learned."
“It’s about being able to perform in intense moments,” said Wilson, who as a true freshman QB completed 20 of 29 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns and one interception and ran 14 times for 73 yards last year against Utah. “There were a lot of moments where the pressure was on and you have to perform and you’ve got to get it done. We didn’t get that done at the end. It’s something I’m definitely preparing for — to finish how we started."
For most of last season, BYU’s offense started notoriously slow.
“That was really frustrating as the season went on. We knew we needed to start fast against Utah,” Bushman recalled. “We started fast but we didn’t finish. That was also very frustrating. On offense and defense, with practices or conditioning, we always try to start fast and finish strong. That’s definitely a strong motto that the leaders are reminding the players so we have that in our heads come game one. We have Utah. They’re going to be prepared. We can’t have any mental breakdowns because they’ll capitalize on it. We’re trying to have confidence for game one and be as prepared as we can.”
Wilson said he would be motivated for the season opener no matter the opponent. But the fact it’s Utah?
“It’s one of those teams we for sure want to beat. We always want to approach one game at a time. For Utah, we have all this time of preparation, almost an entire year, from when the last game ended, to prepare for this game. That’s the only reason we’re so heavy on Utah. If the schedule was switched around, we’d have to prepare for whoever it is first. I think that makes it a little more exciting because you’re going to have those first-game mistakes, things that just don’t go right. But mentally, people are all going to be in the right path. We’re going to get things going. I’m just excited because this is a game we’ve been preparing for since last year. I know our guys will be ready, for sure.”
Roderick has been involved in plenty of BYU-Utah games over the years as both a player and a coach.242 comments on this story
“I think about that loss last year every single day. That’s the way that game is every year. Not just that one. Anytime you’ve ever been on the losing end in that game, all the way back to when I was a player, it gnaws at you for a whole year,” he said. “Utah has had the benefit of feeling good about it for a while. I was there for a lot of those wins (over BYU). When you lose, it eats at you every day. If it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with you. If it doesn’t bother you every single day, you shouldn’t be involved in this sport. That’s what makes the game so great. If it didn’t mean anything, it hurts because it matters. It’s a big deal.”
Adding to the intrigue this year is that the rivalry game, for the first time, is the season opener.
“It’s nice we have Utah coming to town and open up the season at LaVell Edwards Stadium. It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Sitake said. “We know how last year went. We used that as motivation going into the bowl game and also motivation going into spring football and the offseason. We don’t have to wait too much longer.”