As the college football season, in all its chaos, comes to an end, the University of Utah Utes will look to end an already fantastic season on a high note against the Brigham Young University Cougars.
The Cougars (6-5) come into Salt Lake City to face off with the Utes (8-3, 6-3 Pac-12) just after their bowl-clinching victory — a 45-10 routing of New Mexico State. To say that winning six games is a pleasant surprise for the Cougars is no understatement. Coming off of a dismal 4-8 campaign last year, the team hadn’t done much in terms of recruiting, not reaching higher than a 3-star recruit and only taking in 15 players, most of whom had yet to see any time on the field.
The Cougars are also having to deal with the departure of Francis Bernard, a junior linebacker who left during the summer to play for the University of Utah. A thin linebacking corps, coupled with juggling at quarterback between veteran Tanner Mangum — who the Utes picked off three times last year in Provo — and Zach Wilson — a Utah recruit who decided to commit to BYU — has resulted in a mediocre season with some positives to take away.
The highlight of the season for the Cougars was an upset on the road against the then-ranked-sixth Wisconsin Badgers. While winning because of a missed Badger field goal, the game essentially ended Wisconsin’s playoff hopes, while becoming a game for the ages for BYU. The victory was the first time Wisconsin had lost at home against a non-conference opponent since 2003. The game proved to be the highlight of the season for the Cougars, as they would go 2-4 in the next six games. One of those losses came against Northern Illinois University, a team that the Utes had found victory against earlier in the season. The Cougars failed to score a touchdown, which was a bit of a theme in the second half of their season. Against tougher defenses, Mangum and the BYU offense had troubles putting the ball in the endzone. The team only scored once in a loss to Washington, and aside from NIU, never let in less than 20 points. That kind of defensive shortcoming puts a huge weight on the offense, and with a 25-year old quarterback with limited mobility, the production is bound to dip on both sides of the ball.
The Utes, on the other hand, have had a season for the ages. The team has found its rhythm on both sides of the ball, and even with the loss of starters like Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss and Devonta’e Henry-Cole, the team has avoided the injury bug for much of the season and has been able to rebound from the injuries they’ve encountered. Jason Shelley and Armand Shyne have filled in beautifully as the team’s quarterback/running back duo, and the receiving corps needs no introduction.
The interesting thing about this iteration of the Holy War is the surprising lack of implications. When both teams battled in the Mountain West Conference, the winner of the Holy War would, more likely than not, win the conference and a bowl game, while the loser was done for the season. This year, the stakes are relatively low. Both teams have locked up bowl games, and the Utes have secured a spot in the Pac-12 Championship. A loss would only make the losing team look bad. The only reason to play, which is the best reason, is for the glory of the rivalry. The teams have played each other 99 times before, and one’s success usually came at the expense of the other.
In the final game of the season for both teams, the Holy War will be renewed and, while with less vengeance and vitriol, the rivalry will still live on forever.