If we must get all Biblical, and, apparently, we must, in a college football rivalry game unfortunately named the “Holy War,” then let’s start by joining in, by turning to the book of Matthew in the New Testament, where it reads, in so many words, what is divinely applicable here.
The first will be last and the last will be first.
So it is, then, that what was once the last game of the year — Utah vs. BYU — is now the first. And given all the circumstances that conspired to move the game, namely, the gods of the Pac-12 demanding it, it is an inspired place for the game to be.
So let it be written, so let it be done.
Can we get a hallelujah on that? A righteous yell? An amen?
Yes, we can — from coaches, players and fans.
It beats the heaven and hell out of opening the season against, say, Presbyterian College or Northwest Nazarene. No offense intended for the Blue Hose and the Nighthawks — oops, they don’t even play football — but that kind of lid-lifting challenge doesn’t quite hold the attention of players working and sweating in the buzzard-hot days of August like this does.
Nobody’s daydreaming or dogging it now.
That much is evident to anyone who has visited with the Utes and Cougars in the run-up to the big game.
BYU’s players, in particular, have not hidden the importance they attach to the opener, to winning the opener, speaking honestly about their approach to playing Utah. It is huge for them, large enough to keep them working hard when they are tired and sore and sick of running drills and fed up with coaches screaming in their face masks, demanding more precision, better execution, greater effort.
None of them have beaten the Utes in their college careers — and that goes for most of the coaches, too. As for the football program as a whole, eight straight losses is hateful to everyone involved in it. The way they see it, eight is enough. It hurts them in recruiting, especially in-state. BYU coaches have had their fill of hearing the echoes of Utah recruiters not only beating the drum over and over and over about offering an opportunity to recruits for them to play in a power conference, unlike what BYU offers, they have grown absolutely weary of hearing about the rivalry losing streak.
Changing that on the field, head to head, is Job 1 for those coaches, particularly the head coach, Kalani Sitake, who has never beaten Utah since taking the reins in December of 2015.
Anyone who believes that doesn’t bug him, day in and night out, doesn’t know Sitake at all. He’s attempting to secure a contract extension at his alma mater, and beating Utah would aid him in a most notable way. He and those who work under him and play for him are fully aware of the situation. They want to win this for themselves, and for their boss.
The motivation is every bit as strong for the Utes.
Make no mistake about the care factor on their end. Kyle Whittingham may have other team goals, tiny matters on his agenda, such as winning the Pac-12 and going to the Rose Bowl, and he may hate playing this game, because of his personal connection to and feelings about it, the former Cougar going up against the program for which he and other family members played and coached, but he would rather expire on the sideline than lose to B-Freakin-Y-Freakin-U.
And that attitude is clearly expressed to every player on his team. Has been for years. If it’s important to their head coach, it’s important to them. And every one of them has received that message, at an amplitude that would shake a house.
Even, especially, as Utah has been picked to win the Pac-12 and has a lofty preseason national ranking, it is pushed and pulled to win Game 1. The Utes could do something extraordinary this season, and losing to BYU would be an unacceptable way for them to commence their presumed ascent.
The fans are into it, too, because so often, as already discussed, seasons are launched with a lesser opponent, one that offers as its reward mostly disappointment if the home team doesn’t win by 40. This adds extra meaning, a layer of oomph that brings reward with any kind of victory.
For the Utes, it’s a commandment straight from Whittingham himself: Thou shalt not lose to BYU.
For the Cougars, it’s a habit they badly want to break: Who remembers their last win?
The rivalry game, right out the gate, will not only have served its purpose, stirring proper preparation for a season, for a game that still matters, it also will tell us, most magnificently, who’s breaking what.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.