U, BYU well matched for rivalry week

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

It’s here.

Fans on both sides of the fence wait year-round for the annual “Holy War,” and this year’s version provides something no other season has been able to give — two teams that are peaking at the right time.

Utah and No. 23 BYU both struggled through the first part of their schedules. For the Utes, an injury-plagued season-opener against Oregon State contributed to three early losses. New faces getting familiar with starting roles led to two close losses to Tulsa and UCLA for the Cougars.

Going into Rivalry Week, both teams have ironed out their respective problems now and are enjoying seven-game winning streaks.

“I think we match up very evenly across the board,” Utah quarterback Brian Johnson said. “They have great players, and we have great players. It’s just going to be a battle of who wants it more and who can execute their game plan better.”

Although the Utes and Cougars have taken similar routes through their schedule, the methods they’ve used to get to this point couldn’t be more polar.

The Utes have staked their claim to a seven-game winning streak by reverting to the throwback days of a hard-nosed run game. The Cougars boast a passing game that conjures images of Steve Young or Ty Detmer’s era, ranking at the top of the Mountain West Conference in yards per game (315.2) and passing efficiency (138.4).

Both respective offenses have their work cut out for them this week, though. Utah running back Darrell Mack and the Utes face a BYU defense that ranks first in the Mountain West Conference and 10th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (92.1). Seniors Brian Kehl and Kelly Poppinga key the effort from their positions at linebacker.

“I like that kind of competition where they can test me, because I’m gonna test them too,” Mack said. “Let’s see who the best is. I hope they do worry and prepare just for me. I wanna show them what I’m capable of. I don’t care who their defense is.”

Meanwhile, BYU quarterback Max Hall and the Cougars face a Utah pass defense that is tops in the MWC and third in the nation in passing efficiency defense (94.3). Only LSU and Ohio State rank ahead of the Utes.

Hall isn’t a pushover, though. The sophomore is first in the conference in yards per game and second in passing efficiency (139.9).

Hall left early in the fourth quarter of the Cougars’ 35-10 drubbing of Wyoming with a slight shoulder separation. The sophomore returned to the game but threw one completion — an 8-yard dump-off to running back Harvey Unga. The sophomore is expected to play this week.

Utah’s Brian Johnson suffered a similar, albeit more severe, shoulder separation earlier this season. The injury forced the junior to miss three weeks.

“(A shoulder separation) affects your arm strength and the velocity on the ball,” Johnson said. “Another thing it affects is your deceleration when your arm is coming down. (The ball) just tends to sail on you at times.”

The opportunistic Utah defense will surely be ready if passes tend to fly errant. The Utes have forced 28 turnovers this season (T-10th in the nation), and 15 of them have been interceptions.

If Hall and the BYU passing attack can’t get the wheels churning against the Utes, the Cougars will likely turn to Unga. In his freshman year, Unga is already one of the MWC’s elite backs. The 6-foot, 221-pounder from Provo ranks fourth in the conference with 90.9 yards per contest.

As is often the case in the week leading up to the rivalry game, players have given their two cents on the upcoming matchup and the opposing team.

Considering the rich history of trash-talking between the two teams, this year’s edition has been fairly tame.

Kehl made a veiled prediction for the rivalry game following the Cougars’ win over Wyoming, which guaranteed the Cougars at least a share of the conference title, but that has basically been the extent of it.

“We have a whole trophy to win, and we have two more games,” Kehl told the Deseret Morning News following BYU’s win. “We’re going to get it done. What are we, 8-2? That’s great. I can’t wait to be 9-2.”

Although dim, the Utes’ conference title hopes would be alive with a win. They would need San Diego State to beat BYU on Dec. 1 to clinch a share of the conference championship.

At any rate, the annual rivalry matchup will come down to two talented teams, two different schools and two rabid fan bases.

“In any rivalry game, you can throw out home-field advantage, and you can throw out the records,” said Utah safety Steve Tate, who grew up a Ute fan. “It comes down to two teams that have their differences, and it comes down to passion and emotion.”

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Ariana Torrey