Game will mark end of an era for Utes and Cougars
Bronco Mendenhall knows what's coming.
With the annual college football rivalry game between his Brigham Young Cougars and the Utah Utes at hand once again, the coach instructed his players not to say anything about the big game until Monday knowing that the hype and excitement surrounding the state's biggest sporting event will engulf seemingly everything soon enough.
"The outside interest is much different in this game," Mendenhall said. "Managing that is something that changes every year. I don't have a great handle on it. But I do know that the more I can keep the outside world away from our team, the better it is in this particular week. I didn't think that to begin with, but I think that now."
The game represents probably the last big hurrah for the rivals.
The No. 23-ranked Utes (9-2) and Cougars (6-5) will meet for the final time as Mountain West Conference colleagues at Rice-Eccles Stadium, with the Utes leaving the league next summer to join the Pac-10 Conference and the Cougars leaving to play football as an independent.
The teams will continue to play every year, but near the beginning of the season instead of the end, with not nearly as much at stake as there has been over most of the past two decades an era whose unprecedented competitive balance has fueled a flurry of both fantastic finishes and nasty controversies.
Just last year, BYU quarterback Max Hall famously declared his hatred for the Utes after beating them 26-23 in overtime at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, saying that family members had been viciously jeered and harassed the previous season at Utah.
At the same game, the wife of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was involved in a scuffle between angry fans.
"It's rivalry week, so that always adds a certain flavor to the game," coach Whittingham said. "Historically, it is a very intense, emotional game, but there are zero sentimental feelings" about the end of an era.
Although this year's game once figured to be another opportunity for the Utes to complete a perfect regular-season they beat the Cougars badly en route to the prestigious Bowl Championships Series in 2004 and 2008 it has been recast since the Utes lost back-to-back games following an 8-0 start, before steadying themselves Saturday with a win at San Diego State.
Now, it's a chance for the Cougars to perhaps supplant the Utes in the pecking order for postseason bowl games, having won four straight after a miserable start to their season.
They have won three of the last four meetings, by a total of only 12 points.
The players "don't need much motivation for this week," Whittingham said. "The game takes care of itself."
Mendenhall said he hasn't studied the Utes closely enough to know whether their recent slump has made them more vulnerable than they appeared earlier in the season, and he's not sure whether it would really matter, anyway.
Not when it comes to the rivalry game.
"When it comes down to this final game," he said, "it is almost a season in and of itself for the teams."
Brigham Young at No. 23 Utah
Saturday, 1:30 p.m., The Mtn.
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