One thousand two hundred and seventy three.
That’s the number of times, something like that, I’ve been asked who’s going to win the Utah-BYU game.
Anticipation may be one of the primary components to a football season opener, but it is amplified a hundred times more when that first game includes the interest and intensity and insanity of the BYU-Utah rivalry. That game is now a week away, and while there’s much to anticipate, there’s also a bit of mystery cloaking the whole thing.
Here, then, are six key issues to be settled when the anticipating ends and the action and the answering begins:
1. Can BYU’s offensive line handle the Utes’ defensive front?
It’s a hell of a question, and a hellish challenge for the Cougars. Utah has one of the best defensive lines in all of college football, featuring Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu and John Penisini. All three of those guys are not just on the mind of BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, but also on up the boards of NFL scouts. And they have a lot of complementary friends alongside.
BYU’s offensive line, still young, is the strength of its team with notables such as James Empey, Brady Christensen, and Tristen Hoge. There are others, as well, like Harris LaChance and Kieffer Longson.
This is good stuff … a glorious matchup, the importance of which would’ve fit right in had we been considering it 50 seasons ago. Woody Hayes and Bud Wilkinson and Bo Schembechler would love it.
Kyle Whittingham’s defensive philosophy has always been, and will continue to be, as long as he stands on a sideline, to stop the run first. Every other aspect of proper resistance centers on those four words.
On the other hand, the offensive line is, at least from this corner, the most significant part of any football team at any level besides the quarterback position. It smoothes the ride of any attack, making every other offensive aspect properly function — opening holes and providing time for the skill guys to do their work. And if it doesn’t do those things, everything collapses.
2. Will BYU find a running game?
This second question obviously is related to the first. No holes, no yards. But somebody has to run through those openings, however scant they may be. Ty’Son Williams has been impressive in BYU’s camp, and the transfer out of South Carolina will be the Cougars’ primary hope.
If they cannot find some measure of space on the ground, they’re toast.
And if they have to rely on quarterback Zach Wilson to gain their rushing yardage — in last season’s game, the Utes out-rushed BYU by only two yards, 155 to 153, with Wilson getting 73 of the Cougars’ total on scrambles — that would be less preferable for them.
3. Which quarterback will be more effective — Tyler Huntley or Wilson?
Huntley will get fewer opportunities to throw than Wilson, given that much of Andy Ludwig’s offense will be built on getting the ball to Zack Moss and whoever is backing him up, and BYU’s knowing, against Utah, it must rely — 60-40 — on the pass. However, there will be times when the senior QB will be counted on to shove defenses, including BYU’s, onto their heels by throwing deep, by posing a threat to all quadrants of the field, and thereby opening more room for Moss to run. Moreover, there will be key moments when Huntley’s mind and arm — and legs — will be utilized to read and recognize situations, to get the ball to the right place at the right time, keeping drives alive on third downs.
A year ago, Jason Shelley, who earlier in the season had replaced the injured Huntley, threw 28 passes, Wilson threw 29.
The BYU sophomore has garnered a lot of attention since his overall success last season, a head-first experience that included him guiding BYU to two different 20-point leads over the Utes in November, neither of which held up. He completed 20 passes, 21 if you include the one he threw to Julian Blackmon, who returned the pick 27 yards for a touchdown.
As is typically the case at BYU, the quarterback will have to play well to give the Cougars any shot at victory.
4. Who has the playmakers?
Matt Bushman will lead the way for BYU, or at least make the attempt. He was misused last season, an admission that’s come from the Cougars coaches. When they went back to visit with and observe how Andy Reid did his business at Kansas City, they saw the significance of Travis Kelce on Reid’s offense. Bushman may not be Kelce, but he’s the closest thing BYU has to him. The Cougars will move him around in various formations, including two-tight end sets. He’ll be targeted — a lot.
The Utes, too, have talent at tight end. They also have established maker-of-plays Britain Covey, hoping he will be available to some degree from the opening week. How many reliable receivers blossom, on either side, remains to be seen.
5. Which team will emerge with the best kicking game?
It’s a part of the sport some folks not only would like to ignore, but just as soon eliminate altogether, taking the foot out of football, transforming it into just “ball.” It is huge, nonetheless. No outfit knows this better than the Utes, who have been blessed with great punters and kickers over the past decade who changed and won numerous games. Now, they must replace Matt Gay and Mitch Wishnowsky with grad transfer Andrew Strauch and freshman Ben Lennon. Hmm.
Nothing official has been determined regarding BYU’s punting and kicking, with it flipping day by day, but whispers are that Jake Oldroyd will handle both, except for kickoffs and long attempts, which will come from Skyler Southam.
6. Will focus and emotion overcome the disparity in talent between the Utes and Cougars?
Let’s say it the way it is here. Utah has more better players than BYU. The Utes have more talent, more speed, more depth. But that doesn’t always win every game. More than any other sport, football makes room for absolute determination to win plays, win drives, win quarters, win halves, win games.
A year ago, the Cougars gave it a good shot at Rice-Eccles, gaining and then blowing the aforementioned leads, including the 27-7 advantage they held near the end of the third quarter. Next thing, the Utes came charging back to take victory, 35-27.
BYU has been holding onto that lead as inspiration for what comes next, using it as a rallying cry to close the deal at LaVell’s Place this time around. It can be argued, though, that gaining that lead and then losing it is every bit as discouraging for the Cougars as encouraging. It’s almost as though the Utes looked at the scoreboard, looked at themselves and then said, “Screw this, let’s turn it on.” And they did, coming away with their eighth straight win in the rivalry.
Emotion has its place. Usually, it’s not enough.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.