Holier than thou?

It all comes down to this.

Well, not everything–but for all intents and purposes, Saturday’s game is all that matters for the U football team. The conference title may have already been wrapped up, but in-state bragging rights are yet to be determined. That will all be settled Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, as the Utes take center stage against their archenemies, the Cougars of BYU.

On paper, the game may look like a bit of a mismatch. BYU has emerged as a powerhouse. Utah has been on a season-long rollercoaster. BYU is among the nation’s top-10 in scoring offense and defense. Utah has been a 40-point team one week and completely nonexistent the next. Certainly Cougar tailback Curtis Brown buys into this conventional wisdom. The senior, who is second in the conference in rushing, created buzz earlier this week when he predicted that the Cougars would make quick work of their northern rivals.

Then again, that’s what everybody said last year.

“They’re good at talking. We’re good at winning. I’m 3-0 against them and I want to make it four straight,” Ute senior Eric Weddle said. “We don’t need to shout. We don’t need to say how good we’re going to do; we’ll let our play speak for itself.”

That was the strategy in last year’s Holy War, and needless to say, it paid off. In fact, it’s paid off in each of the last four seasons; BYU hasn’t beaten the Utes since a 24-21 win in Provo in 2001. From then on, it’s been all Utah.

Last year’s victory at LaVell Edwards Stadium was the most surprising of the bunch. The pre-game hype was similar to this year’s: The Cougars were hot, the Utes were no more than an enigma. Starting a little-known transfer quarterback to finish off a disappointing regular season, the Utes were given little chance to come out on top.

But once the players took the field, their roles reversed. The Cougars, known for their quick-strike capability, fell behind early. The Utes, who had been criticized much of last season for predictability and a lack of creativity on both sides of the ball, completely turned that stereotype on its ear. Utah utilized a bundle of unusual defensive formations (including the chaotic “circus” package) that took the Cougars off-guard, rattling John Beck in the process. And though BYU began to figure things out in the second half, the Utes managed to withstand the Cougs’ late rally and, for once, finished off their opponent when push came to shove. In that game, that push came in overtime, and the Utes clinched the upset with Brett Ratliff’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Travis LaTendresse.

And so what seemed to be to many a sure cakewalk for BYU turned into another classic upset. So it goes in this rivalry.

The Utes will have to repeat that task this weekend against a group that has sailed through its competition over the last two months, winning eight games in a row by an average margin of 30 points. U head coach Kyle Whittingham said that this BYU team is “the best team we’ve seen all year long”–high praise considering earlier this season the Utes fell victim to the undefeated Boise State Broncos.

While the Utes went against the grain in order to win last year’s BYU showdown, Whittingham admitted that figuring out this year’s squad will be a more difficult proposition, despite the similarities in personnel.

“I was watching tape all morning,” Whittingham said during Monday’s press conference, “and I can’t find a weakness?We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

However, prospects for a Utah victory certainly look stronger than they did a few weeks ago when the Utes had dropped two straight and sat at just 4-4. But, as Weddle said, the team is “peaking at the right time right now.” Three-straight wins, culminating in a 17-14 thriller over Air Force on Saturday, have the team more capable and confident than it may have been just one month ago.

Like last year, the Utes have put together a strong November. The offense, maligned for much of the season’s earlygoing, has been sharp and productive. The Utes’ D, while showing a few tendencies that the coaching staff is still concerned about, is still one of the better groups in the conference.

But either team can boast about any of the stats or records they want–none of it really matters when it comes to this week. The pressure mounts, not just because of the media spotlight, but around campus as well. After all, these players are still students–and the Utes are hearing plenty from their fellow students.

“It means a lot to us. Everywhere I go–classes–they say, ‘You gotta get these guys.’ Everybody’s talking about it,” said defensive tackle Kelly Talavou. “We’ll just come out there, do our job and just get it done, but it means a lot to us.”