Provo • After a pair of heartbreaking losses to Northern Illinois and Boise State put their postseason aspirations in jeopardy, the BYU Cougars took care of business the past two weekends, knocking off UMass and New Mexico State to become bowl-eligible.
Getting to six wins also took some considerable pressure off the Cougars (6-5) as they head into rivalry week and Saturday’s showdown (8 p.m., FS1) at Utah. As running back Lopini Katoa said after becoming the first BYU freshman to run for four touchdowns in a game in the 45-10 win over lowly NMSU, the Cougars no longer have that burden on their backs.
“It feels great,” said Katoa. “We’re super excited. It should help us focus more on beating Utah and that next game and not worry about what’s to come because we know that we’re eligible. Obviously we have a big game next week and we are excited to start preparing for that.”
Really, can the Cougars take down the Pac-12 South Division champion Utes, after having lost to their rivals in the last seven matchups?
Head coach Kalani Sitake, the former Utah defensive coordinator, said the Cougars can’t be afraid or intimidated, and won’t be.
“We have to prepare,” he said. “It is another game. … We are not scared about it. We are looking forward to the competition. A lot of respect [for Utah]. I want to win, just like they do. But we are going to approach it like it is the last game of the season. We are going to empty our tank and give them everything we’ve got. I know we are going to get the same from them.”
Anybody who thinks the Utes might rest their starters or fail to properly prepare after clinching the Pac-12 South late Saturday night when Oregon defeated Arizona State doesn’t know the history of the rivalry. Sitake congratulated Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and the Utes on their achievement, but said his longtime boss won’t give an inch come Saturday.
“It is a great game. I don’t care when it comes [on the calendar],” Sitake said. “I like the game. I have a connection to Utah. They were great to my family and me when we went up there in 2016. It didn’t go our way and we are looking for a better result. … It is the one that everyone talks about. Now we can talk about it this week.”
Utah won the 2016 game at Rice-Eccles 20-19 when its defense stopped BYU quarterback Taysom Hill’s two-point conversion try in the final seconds.
The Cougars don’t appear to have the talent to keep it that close this year, especially on offense. And they can’t afford another slow start like they’ve had for three straight games and five of their last six.
“Something we can really work on is getting really excited on the first drive, trusting our assignments and trusting our teammates,” said BYU offensive lineman Austin Hoyt. “Having a high level of energy will really help.”
There will be plenty of that at Rice-Eccles Saturday. BYU can count on that.
• Season-ending injuries sustained by key defensive starters are starting to catch up to the Cougars. Senior defensive end Corbin Kaufusi was the latest to be sidelined for the season with a foot injury, and BYU’s pass rush definitely suffered. They sacked Josh Adkins five times, but couldn’t get to the NMSU quarterback at all in the first quarter when they were rushing three or sometimes four down linemen.
“Everybody is hurt right now, it seems like,” Sitake said. “I mean, week 11 just finished. There are not a lot of people who are 100 percent.”
• The Cougars will have to play mistake-free, and get some breaks, to beat Utah. On paper, the Utes are simply far more talented than BYU, even with a backup quarterback (Jason Shelley) and running back (Armand Shyne). BYU’s offensive and defensive lines were pushed around at times in the first half by NMSU’s lines before settling in and dominating the last half of the second quarter and entire second half. Utah’s obviously better in the trenches than those Aggies.
• Zach Wilson showed some poise and moxie in bouncing back after a poor start. The freshman was 1 of 8 for 8 yards passing before starting to click early in the second quarter, displaying the kind of resiliency that will be needed when things go wrong on the hill. And they almost certainly will.
“It was a rough start for him,” Sitake said. “He had some struggles. It happens. I have a lot of confidence in him as a player. He was able to rally back and do better. We just need to start better next week.”
Play of the Game
• Linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi’s second-quarter interception. The redshirt sophomore picked off a pass to end a drive after the NMSU reached the BYU 31 and was threatening to take the lead. The Cougars subsequently marched 77 yards for a TD and the rout was on.
Player of the Game
• Lopini Katoa. With senior starter Squally Canada out again with an undisclosed injury, the freshman rushed for a career-high 155 yards on 19 carries, with a long of 50 yards.
Runner-up: Senior linebacker Sione Takitaki didn’t put up his typical tackling numbers, partly because he was spelled in the second half when the outcome was no longer in doubt. But he did register six takedowns, including a sack and another tackle for loss.
BYU at Utah, 8 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports 1