Kragthorpe: Five reasons I can't wait for Utah-BYU
Imagine if someone could create a sporting event that was guaranteed to fill a big stadium, attract a national television audience and captivate Utahns who anticipate it for months.
Such a competition already exists and it's going away for two years. As the chief executive of the Utah Sports Commission, Jeff Robbins is charged with attracting major events. If his inventory included the Utah-BYU football game and he got rid of it, Robbins would be fired.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and athletic director Chris Hill are responsible for their own football program; I understand that. They believe that having scheduled Michigan in 2014 and '15, the Utes will benefit by playing Fresno State instead of BYU in those two seasons.
I'm not buying the arguments that booking another game in California for the sake of recruiting and having a September contest with less emotional impact can help the Utes that much. Yet rather than debate that subject all week, I'm going to enjoy the last Utah-BYU game between now and 2016. Five reasons I can't wait for Saturday:
Something memorable will happen • Some say the rivalry is just a media creation. But think about what these games have delivered in the past 10 years: The punctuation of Utah's two unbeaten regular seasons, two overtime finishes, Beck-to-Harline, fourth-and-18, Brandon Burton's block and the crazy sequence last September that resulted in Ute fans rushing the field three times.
Yeah, who would want to write about any of that stuff?
The quarterbacks are intriguing • Utah's Travis Wilson and BYU's Taysom Hill have become compelling figures.
Playing to honor the memory of his best friend, Wilson delivered a courageous performance in Saturday's 51-48 overtime loss to Oregon State. He overcame three second-half interceptions to lead two clutch drives late in regulation, finishing each with a touchdown run as he posted 421 yards of total offense.
"We think we've got ourselves a quarterback," Whittingham said.
Hill is coming off his 259-yard rushing effort against Texas, while questions persist about his 33-percent passing through two games. Yet last October, before being injured, he completed 24 of 36 passes for 235 yards against a good Utah State defense.
The offensive lines are improving • After being Utah's biggest weakness last season, the line is much less of an issue now. The offense started slowly against OSU, netting 12 yards on its first 11 plays. But the Utes' next 58 plays in regulation produced 526 yards and 45 points.
BYU's ability to rush for 550 yards against Texas behind a reworked line was stunning, after a poor performance at Virginia. Now, each line will face a much tougher test.
The secondaries are questionable • Utah's defensive strategy was very conservative against OSU, trying to keep the secondary from being exposed. The Utes always have relied on coverage that enabled more players to rush the passer, but the Utes gave up 443 passing yards.
BYU's defensive backs have not faced any quarterback of the caliber of Utah opponents Chuckie Keeton and Sean Mannion. They may be just as vulnerable, and Wilson will try to exploit them.
The game is a Utah treasure • I love this state, and this game is part of the fabric here. BYU cornerback Skye PoVey labels it "something the whole state looks forward to every year," and he can't be exaggerating that much.
Unquestionably, BYU's season will be defined by what happens Saturday to a much greater degree than Utah's, because of the Utes' Pac-12 membership and three-game winning streak in the series.
As former Ute coach Ron McBride told me, "It's almost like when BYU was beating the crap out of us all those years, Utah was just another game. So now, let's say Utah loses the game, I don't think it's going to affect them as much."
But to say a loss wouldn't bother the Utes at all? No. Both teams have plenty to play for, once again.