The Edge

QuarterbackKyle Whittingham has said it time and again: As Brett Ratliff goes, so goes the U football team. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the Utes have won three in a row, considering how well Ratliff has played over the last month. Just a few weeks ago, he was incurring the wrath of the Rice-Eccles crowd; now, he’s back in good graces. Plus, he’s already got the rivalry experience, having emerged from obscurity last year to lead the Utes over the heavily favored Cougs in Provo. However, John Beck is the shoo-in for Player of the Year honors in the Mountain West, and there’s really not much of an argument. Beck has had precious few hiccups during his stellar senior campaign, throwing 26 touchdowns and just six interceptions while completing 71 percent of his passes.Edge: BYU

Running BacksOne of the most criminally overlooked players is BYU tailback Curtis Brown. The 6-foot, 203-pound senior is a bruising runner who was the Cougars’ top offensive weapon in last year’s Holy War. He is second in the conference with 845 yards (averaging nearly 5 yards per carry) and also leads the team with 51 catches. Utah’s backfield doesn’t have an offensive weapon of his caliber. In fact, the Ute backfield is relying increasingly on Eric Weddle, who finished with 73 rushing yards last week and scored both of the team’s touchdowns. Darryl Poston has been adequate, rushing for 531 yards, but he hasn’t shown the big-play ability the Utes need.Edge: BYU

ReceiversThough the Cougars have the most potent offense in the MWC, only one of the team’s receivers has really stood out–tight end Jonny Harline, a pro prospect and Beck’s most reliable target. Harline has hauled in 42 passes this year (for a 15.1-yard average) and a team-best eight touchdown catches. The Utes’ receiving corps, labeled a disappointment through the team’s first several games, is starting to come around. Brent Casteel and Derrek Richards have been big-play threats for most of the year, and preseason all-MWC junior Brian Hernandez–lost in the shuffle for much of the season–caught nine balls last week. Even more important is the gradual emergence of Bradon Godfrey and Freddie Brown as significant threats.Edge: Even

Offensive LineBoth O-lines have done able jobs protecting their respective quarterbacks this year, but Utah’s front five has gotten the most hype for a good reason. With the exception of one game (a 31-15 loss to Wyoming), the Utes’ front five have been dominant. Tavo Tupola leads a big and athletic group that could have multiple all-conference selections by season’s end. The Cougars’ line is led by senior right tackle Jake Kuresa, an Outland Trophy candidate and one of just two upperclassmen in this group.Edge: Utah

Defensive LineThe Cougs’ three-man front, which features two freshmen in the starting lineup, has done an admirable job this year, especially considering the team members’ inexperience. Hala Paongo is the veteran of the group, but even he wasn’t a full-time starter until this season. The Utes’ line has been one of the team’s strengths all season, and the recent return of star defensive tackle Kelly Talavou has been a huge help down the stretch. His presence is pivotal for the Utes, who must stop Curtis Brown in order to stop BYU.Edge: Utah

LinebackersThe Ute linebackers have been on fire, most notably Joe Jiannoni, who has been a terror for opposing offenses lately. On the season, he has amassed 82 tackles (including seven for loss) and three sacks. Not to mention the talented teammates around, including Kyle Brady, Stevenson Sylvester and emerging frosh J.J. Williams. BYU’s Cameron Jensen is an established standout in this conference and has once again led the Cougar defense, which has been a strength this year in stark contrast to the offense-only BYU teams of years past.Edge: Utah

SecondaryEric Weddle is the best defensive back in this matchup by far–just look at last year’s Holy War for evidence of his importance to this Utah team. But the Ute pass defense as a whole has struggled in recent weeks. Defending the deep ball and stopping teams on third down have been recurring troubles, and the Utes will be without Shaun Harper, as well. BYU has intercepted a league-high 16 passes and is holding opponents to less than 200 yards through the air per game–quite a feat considering teams routinely fall behind early and have to pass their way back into contention.Edge: BYU

Special TeamsThe McLaughlin boys have been solid enough for the Cougars, but neither measures up to Utah’s Louie Sakoda, whose game-winning field goal last week only further endeared him to the Ute faithful. In fact, special teams as a whole have been a strong suit for the Utes all season–it’s one area where they have consistently had an advantage.Edge: Utah

CoachingJudging head-coaching candidates is a difficult task. There are so many variables that it’s impossible to narrow it down to one person and judge him solely on the basis of a team’s record. So this is all conjecture. Two things, regardless of variables, can’t be denied: First, Whittingham’s Ute squads have greatly improved in the final month of each of his two seasons at the helm. Second, Bronco Mendenhall has quickly whipped his team into shape, to the extent that BYU is, once again, a nationally recognized program. Most would agree that the results of the latter are favorable.Edge: BYU