Provo » Saturday's BYU-Utah football game is obviously important to both programs, and not just because both teams are nationally ranked, have identical 9-2 records and need the win to keep their momentum going into a bowl game.
But the importance doesn't come close to what was on the line last year, when undefeated Utah met one-loss BYU at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Still, this year's game carries a lot of meaning for BYU's All-American tight end Dennis Pitta , partly because of what happened last year. Pitta suffered an MCL sprain in his knee in the 38-24 win over Air Force the week before the so-called "game of the decade" against Utah and was not at full strength against the Utes.
He still caught two passes for 33 yards, but those numbers were well below his season averages.
"I wasn't able to contribute much in last year's game, and that is always hard," Pitta said. "I am grateful to be healthy this late in the season this year, though, and I am excited for the challenge to be able to go against those guys again, and end my career the way I wanted to."
BYU quarterback Max Hall says Pitta is that rare player who can inspire confidence in those around him. He remembers the big tight end not being able to get open last year as much as he could in previous games.
Hall's other top target, Austin Collie , still had 104 receiving yards. But without the threat of Pitta, Utah was able to focus on Collie, who has since departed for the NFL, and that's part of the reason Hall was intercepted five times.
"We are a confident football team. And I think we were last year, too. We just didn't play as well as we would have liked. And, obviously we had some injuries, and I wasn't able to play as much as I would have liked," Pitta said. "But we've got guys healthy this year, and with Max as our quarterback, we have the utmost confidence in him and his abilities, his leadership. So we are excited to be able to pay this Saturday."
One of three finalists for the John Mackey Award, this is Pitta's last chance to boost his prospects before the winner is announced on Dec. 10 at a college football awards show.
He has 54 receptions for 735 yards and seven TDs, while Florida's Aaron Hernandez has 46 catches for 571 yards and two TDs and Pittsburgh's Dorin Dickerson has 43 catches for 496 yards and 10 TDs.
Pitta has 214 career catches, and needs just two more to pass Collie as the leading pass-catcher in BYU history.
The Cougars will practice this morning, but will finish around noon so the players and coaches can celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in the afternoon and evening before returning to practice on Friday afternoon.
The Cougars still lead the country in third-down conversion percentage (58.39 percent), having converted 80 of 137 opportunities. They are five percentage points better than No. 2 Nevada (71-for-133) ... They are No. 9 in passing offense (303 ypg) and No. 2 in pass efficiency (167.69).