Saturday’s rivalry showdown at Utah is ‘most important game of the year,’ BYU coaches and players say

Cougars have won two straight, are bowl-eligible and eager to snap the Utes' 7-game winning streak in the century-old series

BYU freshman defensive back Malik Moore will get his first taste of the BYU-Utah rivalry on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Isaac Hale/Daily Herald via AP)

Provo • Having qualified to play in next week’s Pac-12 title game and the berth in the Rose Bowl that goes to the conference champion, Utah has more important contests on the horizon than Saturday’s rivalry game against BYU.

But not the 6-5 Cougars, who became bowl-eligible with last week’s 45-10 win over New Mexico State. They want more before they proclaim their season a success. A victory over No. 18 Utah would fit that description.

Saturday’s 8 p.m. showdown at Rice-Eccles Stadium, to be televised by Fox Sports 1, remains the most important game of the year, coach Kalani Sitake and several of his players said Monday in their weekly news conference.

“Yeah, this is not just another game,” Sitake said. “This is the most important game of our season right now, and that’s our approach. I know that adds a lot of expectations and a lot of pressure on our players, and I am OK with it.”

Sitake’s predecessor, Bronco Mendenhall, took a different approach, often downplaying the annual grudge match and refusing to elevate its importance above any other game. Mendenhall won three of his first five games against the Utes, then dropped five straight before leaving for Virginia.

Sitake freely acknowledges that the game is huge for both programs, having spent 10 years on Utah’s sidelines as an assistant coach under Kyle Whittingham.

“This will be a good time for us to play a complete game, and maybe our best game of the year,” Sitake said. “It is a really important game for us. We are approaching it that way and preparing this week with that same mindset to do whatever it takes to get a win.”

Utah has won seven straight rivalry games, but six have been decided by seven points or fewer, including last year’s 19-13 win at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Sitake is 0-2 against Utah after Mendenhall went out with a 35-28 loss to the Utes in the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl.

Of course, the Cougars are well aware of that streak, even if most of them aren’t from Utah or didn’t even know about the rivalry when Utah began the streak in 2010 with a 17-16 win when it blocked a last-second field goal attempt.

“It is the most important game of the year to us, to the coaches, to the fans,” said receiver and captain Micah Simon, a Texas native.

Simon said he isn’t aware how long it has been since BYU beat Utah, but noted, “I know it needs to change. We will use that as motivation this week.”

Having fallen behind early in its past three games, BYU can’t afford another slow start against the Utes, Sitake acknowledged.

“I love the feeling that we are in right now, and building some momentum, so I am excited for this game and to go up to Rice-Eccles and have a great one Saturday night,” he said. “We want to make sure that everything is ready to go and we are able to give everything we have for all 60 minutes, and, if possible, more. ... We are always working, trying to get the perfect game, and this would be a good time to start fast and finish strong.”

Utah linebacker Francis Bernard, a former BYU star, isn’t the only player who has seen both sides of the rivalry. BYU safety Austin Lee began his career at Utah, then transferred to BYU after a church mission.

While some are suggesting Utah might rest some starters because the Pac-12 championship game against the Washington-Washington State winner occurs six days later in Santa Clara, Calif., Lee says even the idea of such a concession is ill-conceived.

“It is a big rivalry game, and everybody knows it, on both sides,” he said. “It is BYU vs. Utah. You guys have seen it the past few years. They have had our number. They treat it the same over there, like they don’t have all the wins that they have had against us. We just gotta come fired up and ready to go.”