BYU could be severely short-handed at running back in rivalry game matchup with Utah’s No. 5 rush defense

Cougars will rely on LB-turned-RB Matt Hadley and freshman walk-on Tyler Allgeier if Squally Canada, Lopini Katoa, Riley Burt can’t go

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Brigham Young Cougars running back Matt Hadley (2) attempts to hold off Hawaii defensive back Ikem Okeke (22) as Brigham Young University hosts Hawaii at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Saturday Oct. 13, 2018. BYU defeated Hawaii 49-23.

Provo • Cold, wet and snowy weather could make throwing the football difficult in Saturday night’s rivalry game at Utah, BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes acknowledged earlier this week.

Even then, nobody has been able to run the football against the Utes, either.

“It’s going to be quite the challenge,” Grimes said Tuesday as the 6-5 Cougars prepared for the 8-3 Utes and the 8 p.m. kickoff at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The Utes are No. 5 in the country in rushing defense (95.5 yards per game) and No. 1 in red zone defense, having allowed just eight rushing touchdowns in 11 games.

BYU was able to run the ball effectively against UMass and New Mexico State, but Utah is a whole different animal, head coach Kalani Sitake said Monday.

The Cougars, who were already thin at running back, could be even more short-handed than usual.

Leading rusher Squally Canada is still in concussion protocol and is doubtful for the game, while Riley Burt was wearing a green non-contact jersey in practice Tuesday, which means he’s questionable, at best.

Word has also leaked out that freshman Lopini Katoa, who rushed for 155 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-10 win over the Aggies, has been hampered by a knee injury and might not be able to play. Even fullback Brayden El-Bakri missed practices this week.

That leaves fifth-year senior Matt Hadley and freshman walk-on Tyler Allgeier as the only two healthy ball-carriers. Two days after Thanksgiving, the Utes might be served a big dose of the jet sweep — which BYU used effectively against Arizona in the opener and Wisconsin in the third game but hasn’t been able to get similar results with since.

“For us — I have said this all year long — we have to be a balanced offense,” Grimes said. “When we are balanced and we are able to run it and throw it with effectiveness in games, we tend to have success and are at least able to move the ball. When we are one-dimensional, we are not very good.”

A lot like the Iron Bowl

Grimes is familiar with the BYU-Utah rivalry, having coached BYU’s offensive line from 2004-06 when the Cougars went 1-2 vs. the Utes, losing 52-21 at Utah and 41-34 in overtime at BYU before the 33-31 BYU win at Rice-Eccles in 2006, the Cougars’ last win there.

He said it reminds him of the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn, having coached at Auburn from 2009-12.

“You have people in that state who are typically born into an Auburn or Alabama family, and the hatred runs very deep there,” he said. “… So many coaches on both sides know each other, so that adds to it as well. Yeah, I would say it is similar to [the Iron Bowl], which is a pretty strong statement.”

Empey was almost a Ute

BYU freshman offensive lineman James Empey committed to play for Utah in 2014 out of American Fork High, but didn’t sign a National Letter of Intent with the Utes because he left on a church mission to Portugal. When Empey’s father, Mike, joined BYU’s coaching staff in 2016, he decided to sign with the Cougars upon his return.

“I am a Cougar now, through and through,” James Empey said. “I am just excited to get my first piece of the rivalry, and I’m glad I’m on this side.”

James Empey said he had collected quite a bit of Utah gear after the original commitment, apparel he has given to “good friends” who happen to be Utah fans.

Wintry weather welcome, but not wind

BYU assistant coach Aaron Roderick said the wintry weather expected for the late-night showdown shouldn’t be a factor in the game.

“Both teams play in it,” he said. “We will deal with it. Snow doesn’t really bother me. The hardest thing to play offense in his heavy wind. But if it rains a little bit, or snows a little bit, no big deal.”