Scott D. Pierce: ESPN's Ed Cunningham leans toward BYU barely
Ed Cunningham will be in the booth for ESPN2's telecast of the Utah-BYU game on Saturday, so it's only appropriate that he doesn't want to make a prediction.
But after working the BYU-Texas game for ESPN and watching the Utah-USC game on tape, he said, "BYU might have an advantage."
This will be Cunningham's first time working a Utes-Cougars game, which "seems like it's a pretty healthy-slash-intense rivalry," he understated.
When it comes to BYU-Utah, almost anything you say, no matter how tactful, is going to rile up one side or the other. And Cunningham did say, "This, from an outsider's perspective, does seem like a bigger deal for BYU than for Utah. Only because they don't have a conference championship to play for and now they're effectively out of the national championship conversation. And Utah is now in a BCS conference."
Cunningham, a member of Washington's 1991 national championship team who played five years in the NFL, said repeatedly that he doesn't see the same team speed at Utah that was there in '08 and '09. And that "at times [Ute QB Jordan Wynn]'s arm strength betrays him. He just doesn't have that strong of an arm. If he's not right on time, the ball tends to float on him quite a bit and that can be quite a problem."
It's not like Cunningham doesn't see problems with the BYU offense. In Austin on Saturday, he was surprised by BYU's second-half collapse that saw the Cougars go from a 13-3 lead to a 17-16 loss.
"The first half was not a fluke. BYU was the better team," he said. "Then in the second half, they just looked like a totally different offense."
Cunningham wondered about the effect of having first-year offensive coordinator Brandon Doman calling plays, and theorized that BYU's new offense is "more different than people think. Maybe they're going through some growing pains trying to figure out how to be a more physical, run-first kind of offense. Because that's kind of the feeling I get that Doman would like to be able to do."
"And we've got to remember, as good as he looks at times and as confidently as he carries himself, [BYU QB] Jake Heaps is still only making his 13th start in college. So there's still some growth to go there.
"But if I was them, I'd be a little concerned. With the athletes they have, with the quarterback they have, with the offensive line they have, they should be more productive."
Cunningham said he was particularly impressed with the defensive fronts of both teams. "USC was able to pick up some yards, but it wasn't like Utah was being gashed. And, frankly, a lot of times I thought Utah's defensive line was winning the battle.
"But that BYU front seven is as good as there is in the country. They're big guys who can move and I think the linebacking corps is as good as there is in the country as well."
Cunningham isn't making a prediction for Saturday's game, however. Except that he's not expecting a blowout either way. Which would be good for ESPN2.
"We just want a last-second field goal to win the game. From either team," he said with a laugh. "For us, it's so much better to have tight games than blowouts.
"If I was pressed, it looks to me like BYU might be the superior team. But USC's a pretty darn good team, and Utah stood in there and went toe-to-toe with them. And if a couple of things break their way, they win that game."
Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. His sports on TV column appears on Wednesdays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.
Utah at BYU
The game airs Saturday at 7:15 p.m. on ESPN2. Mark Jones will handle the play-by-play; Ed Cunningham will be the color analyst.