BYU-Utah rivalry game a bigger mystery in September
Having watched BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall answer question after question about special teams play, tentative running backs, the timing of this year's rivalry game with Utah, the opposing quarterback's arm and who knows what else, a young reporter finally cut to the chase earlier this week at the Cougars' practice field.
Hey coach, she asked, which is the better team?
"We will find out," Mendenhall said. "That's why we are playing, I guess, in week number three, in part to say that."
Mendenhall's point was that the cliche about throwing the record books out the window when the Utes and Cougars clash kickoff is at 7:15 p.m. Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium does not apply this year, either. That's because there are just inconclusive 1-1 records and no common opponents to compare this year, the game being played earlier in the year than ever before.
Call it the mystery game and get used to it.
September matchups will be the norm from here on out, it appears, with Utah now a member of the Pac-12 and BYU an independent in football.
"There are a ton of questions," Mendenhall said. "Through the course of the year you are watching [Utah's] film. But this early in the season, it is hard to predict what either team will have to show because changes are made week-to-week. You will see some subtle changes in week three, and it probably won't balance out until week five or six."
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said "there's a different flavor, different feel" to this year's game, and not just because temperatures will be in the 60s and 70s instead of the 30s and 40s. But, "I think it will remain every bit as intense," he said.
When they knew they were meeting in late November, the teams would keep tabs on each other they combined to win or share eight MWC titles in 12 years as the drama and animosity ratcheted up.
"You always keep an eye on the top teams in the conference and analyze the standings," Whittingham said. "We would be aware of which big games [BYU] had coming up."
No longer. Utah defeated Montana State and lost at USC earlier this month; BYU won at Ole Miss and lost at Texas, meaning Saturday's game is the Cougars' home opener.
"How does anyone know right now how it will turn out? Not much to go off of," Mendenhall said.
Adding to the intrigue is that both teams have changed offensive coordinators since the Utes edged the Cougars 17-16 in November at Rice-Eccles Stadium when Brandon Burton blocked Mitch Payne's potential game-winning field-goal attempt.
BYU's offense has sputtered under the direction of Brandon Doman, while Utah's has been inconsistent with former BYU coordinator Norm Chow calling the plays.
Whittingham said "you can tell [BYU's] coordinators have changed and the play-calling is a little bit different, but the base set is similar to what they've used in the past." Comparing the offenses, he said, "both are in their infancy and neither are really on track."
Meanwhile, Mendenhall's coaches have been forced to hit the film archives to learn more about what Chow will do.
"We have really had to go back and study UCLA and other places that Norm Chow has been, in trying to get carryover plays, and carryover concepts, to add to their first two games, knowing that this will be their third game," Mendenhall said. "There will be something different that we haven't seen yet, and you do your best to prepare, and then adjust midstream. There will be a play or two, or a grouping of plays, that we haven't seen yet. You just do your best to predict it."
If the past six matchups pitting Whittingham and Mendenhall are any indication, it will be close. Five of the six games have been decided on the final play. And not since 1995 has a rivalry game in Provo been decided by more than seven points.
"Usually, we have to wait a long time to play them," BYU safety Travis Uale said. "But it's a short time: game three, week three. â¦ It's going to be really fun, especially because it is early in the year and we don't have to wait."
Besides, every good mystery has a surprise ending.
Tribune reporter Lya Wodraska contributed to this report.
Past Five BYU-Utah Games at LaVell Edwards Stadium:
2009 BYU 26, Utah 23 (OT)
Andrew George game-winner overshadowed by Max Hall rant
2007 BYU 17, Utah 10
Sore-armed Hall and Austin Collie get it done on fourth-and-18
2005 Utah 41, BYU 34 (OT)
Ute backup QB Brett Ratliff surprises heavily favored Cougars
2003 Utah 3, BYU 0
Played in a blizzard, Cougars' 361-game scoring streak snapped
2001 BYU 24, Utah 21
Luke Staley fueled fourth-quarter comeback for Cougars
Utah at BYU
P At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Kickoff • 7:15 p.m.
TV • ESPN2. Radio • 1160 AM, 700 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 1-1, Utah 1-1
Series history • Utah leads 51-31-4
Last meeting • Utah, 17-16 (2010)
About the Cougars • They held the Utes scoreless for three quarters last year before giving up 17 in the fourth. â¦ They are 30-6 at home in the Bronco Mendenhall era and have not lost to a team from Utah at home since 2006. â¦ They have not given up more than 30 rushing yards in a first quarter in their past seven games. â¦ They are 15-2 in the past 17 games decided by seven points or fewer.
About the Utes • This is the earliest date they have ever met the Cougars. The only other time the two teams have met in September was on Sept. 27, 1958. â¦ Head coach Kyle Whittingham played for BYU from 1978-81, co-offensive coordinator Norm Chow coached at BYU from 1973-99, co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick played at BYU from 1996-98 and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake played at BYU in 1994 and from 1997-2000.