BYU has finished its comeback tour, routing the bottom tier of the Mountain West conference. After starting with an emotional win over Washington, the Cougars dropped four straight, including a 31-16 loss at Utah State, that led to the firing of defensive coordinator Jaime Hill. Since then, the Cougars are 5-1, having won four straight. On Saturday, they will head to Salt Lake City to face the Utes in the Holy War.
Utah is (9-2). After starting the season 8-0, they lost two consecutive blow-out games, against TCU and Notre Dame. They went on the road to San Diego State last Saturday, and many felt the Utes would lose their third straight game there. They almost did. They were down 20-3 at one point, and later 27-10, and it seemed likely that they would give up and head home with a loss. But a late touchdown in the second quarter, followed by a tipped hail Mary touchdown to end the half, left only a 3 point Aztec lead, and the game ended up going to the Utes. What do we know about them? They won a hard-fought game against SDSU, and they have not given up on the season. They have excelled against mediocre to poor opposition. Bottom line is, with the win in San Diego, the Utes are alive and runnin’, and they will have their best game ready for BYU on Saturday.
BYU has come a long way. The first half of the season was characterized by a four game losing streak, and this half of the season features a four game winning streak. It has been pointed out, that the Cougars’ success has come against increasingly weak opposition. Wins came against Washington, San Diego State, Wyoming, UNLV, Colorado State, and New Mexico. Hopefully the gradual drop in opposition will not have lured the Cougars into a trap against Utah. BYU now sports a top-40 defense, and a top-40 rushing offense. These have been the hallmarks of the team since the mid-season turnaround. BYU is at the top of their game. Jake Heaps is at the top of his game. The Cougars have done the unthinkable – they are prepared to play the Utes.
Keys to the game
Jake Heaps and the Receivers. Utah had been fairly stingy against the pass through the first eight games, but in the last three, they have given up more than 1,000 yards through the air, including more than 500 against San Diego State on Saturday. A week out, SLC weather is expected to be 44 degrees, partly cloudy, with only 7mph wind. If that’s the case, I think Heaps, Ashworth, and Hoffman combine for 250+ yards and two touchdowns.
The Rush Attack. JJ DiLuigi, Bryan Kariya, and Josh Quezada have been a great trio of running backs this season. Whether or not the passing game has its way, I think these three will have a great day, and come up with 200+ yards and a couple of touchdowns. The best part of having three reliable RB’s, is that you can always have someone fresh, and any one of them could have a breakout game.
Special Teams. Cody Hoffman and JD Falslev have been having great kickoff returns this season, it’s been exciting to watch. Utah’s Shaky Smithson is also dangerous. Special teams look to be a big factor. The BYU-Utah games are usually close, and one big play on special teams can end up being the difference. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one team or the other have a special teams TD.
Ball Control. Interceptions and Fumbles have been a big part of BYU and Utah’s games of late. Momentum is huge, and capitalizing on mistakes is crucial to maintaining it. I think we will see a lot of turnovers in this emotion-filled game, and the team that wins the turnover battle will likely win the game.
Bronco D. BYU hasn’t seen a truly great offensive team since TCU. In that game, they held the high-powered Horned Frogs to just three points until 1:30 remaining in the second quarter. TCU’s first five drives ended like this: punt, punt, FG, turnover on downs, punt. BYU’s goal is to make teams one-dimensional. The Bronco D held TCU’s top ten rushing offense (that was averaging around 270 rushing yards per game) to just 108. I would expect BYU to implement a similar game plan against the Utes, and make Jordan Wynn beat them through the air. He is fully capable of doing so, but knowing that the pass is coming makes life easier on your secondary, and gives them a better chance of making a play to disrupt the pass. This defense has been at the core of the changes that Bronco implemented mid-season, and I think that this game will be won or lost by Bronco’s D.
The Holy War is almost always close, and BYU is on a 14 game winning streak in games decided by 7 points or less. In my season preview, I chose BYU over Utah 31-28 (OT), and I am sticking with it.