It is certainly strange to be writing about the BYU-Utah rivalry game in September, but Pac 12 non-conference game regulations forced the move of the game from its usual November slot. BYU does play at Oregon State on October 15th, but that game was scheduled before the new rule was in effect. So here we are in week three. Both teams are coming off of heartbreaking losses in week 2, with BYU falling short at Texas, and Utah couldn’t quite get it done at USC. Both teams will be looking to regroup with a big win over their rival this weekend.
After starting the season with a 27-10 win over Montana State, Utah fell to USC last week 23-14…no, make that 17-14…actually, no, let’s go ahead and call it 23-14. What’s that all about? A last second Utah field goal attempt was blocked by USC and returned for a touchdown. The referees took away the touchdown based on the new celebration penalty in effect this year, but it was re-awarded after the fact by the Pac 12. So there you go. Anyway…back to Utah. They had their game-tying field goal blocked, and probably have some more empathy for what BYU fans went through when Utah blocked a BYU field goal attempt to end the rivalry game last year. It is still too early in the season to say exactly how good everyone is. Jordan Wynn appears to be struggling to pass efficiently, and the Utes have only averaged 169 passing yards through two games. The rushing attack has averaged 136 yards per game, but only had 80 against USC. How good are the Utes? Much better than Montana State, and good enough to beat USC, even though they came up short.
It’s possible that we know more about BYU than Utah. BYU beat Ole Miss on the road in week 1, and lost to Texas on the road in week 2. Both games were decided by one point, and featured good to great BYU defense and poor to fair BYU offense. Heaps and Doman are still working out the kinks in the new offense, and while things looked great in the first half of the Texas game (with three scoring drives, including a 97 yard touchdown drive), the BYU offense didn’t have an answer for Texas’ halftime adjustments. So, how good are the Cougars? Somewhere in between Ole Miss and Texas. The Cougar defense is solid, which means the success or failure of the offense will likely determine the outcome of this week’s game.
Keys to the game
Doman. It’s amazing how short of a leash fans will put you on. After just two games, some fans are frustrated enough by the conservative, Anae-like play-calling that they are even suggesting he ought to be replaced. If Ole Miss hadn’t been a win, these fans may have reacted similarly after game one. Doman’s calls have been very conservative – most notably on Saturday was a 3rd and 9 call for a draw play. It was only his second game as offensive coordinator, so of course he needs time to settle in, but you can’t win games by playing not to lose. Doman is going to have to be willing to open up the playbook and give the players a chance to make plays in order to get a win this Saturday.
Heaps. Jake was looking quite timid in the Texas game, especially after the Longhorns got flagged for a roughing the passer penalty. From that point on it seemed that if Jake saw any sort of pressure coming, he automatically threw to his check-down receiver, regardless of whether or not the pressure actually came. This tendency made it easy for the Texas defense to predict what Heaps was going to do, especially late in the game, which cut down on the yards after catch. Short throws and few extra yards do not translate to first downs. Heaps will have to learn to stand in the pocket and take a few hits every now and then, and in exchange he will have more down-field completions.
The Rush Attack. BYU only rushed for 43 yards against Texas. It wasn’t for lack of trying. The Cougars averaged fewer than two yards per carry. The lack of a run game translated to no one buying the play-action, and created extra pressure on Jake Heaps, which he seemed unable/unwilling to deal with. Regardless of Heaps’ reaction, the Cougars have got to find a way to run the ball effectively. We have talented enough runningbacks to get the job done. The whole offense, from coordinator to third-string linemen, needs to step up and play at a higher level.
Special Teams. Last year’s rivalry game came down to a blocked field goal. With the exception of 2004 and 2008, the BYU-Utah games have recently been decided by only a few points, and that means one big play can easily make or break this game. BYU has had some exciting kickoff and punt returns this year, and they have players capable of making touchdowns on those returns. Sorenson was 3/3 with his field goals against Texas, each of them coming around the 30 yard line. Hopefully this is a sign that his short to mid range game is growing more consistent, because the Cougars may rely on him to try and win this game if Heaps and co aren’t able to find the endzone. Hopefully the Cougars have worked on their field goal formation since the last Utah game.
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 few turnovers in this emotion-filled game, and the team that wins the turnover battle will likely win the game.
Bronco D. BYU’s defense has been stellar, and they literally won the Ole Miss game. But a defense can’t make up for a lack of offense, and can’t win every game for you. Bronco will have his players ready, and they will shut down the Utah run game, and force the Utes to beat the Cougars on Jordan Wynn’s arm. Wynn will hopefully become well acquainted with BYU’s linebackers in this game, and that should lead to mistakes the defense can capitalize on.
The Holy War is almost always close, and these two teams seem to have struggling offenses. I think this will be a close, defensive battle – and I think the Cougars will get the best of the Utes in Provo this Saturday. BYU will win 21-17.