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The BYU-Utah rivalry is a kinder, gentler experience for Devin Kaufusi, others who have lived both sides of it

Transfers and job changes have helped provide perspective for these Utes and Cougars.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Devin Kaufusi (92) gets the fans pumped up as BYU faces the Western Michigan Broncos in the 2018 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Kaufusi transferred to the University of Utah in 2020 after two seasons with the Cougars.

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The first rivalry game that Utah defensive end Devin Kaufusi remembers was the 2005 thriller. Utes backup quarterback Brett Ratliff threw for four touchdowns that day, beating BYU in overtime, and stunning the crowd in Provo.

It was an indelible moment for the young Kaufusi.

It was heartbreaking.

A year later, Kaufusi was at Rice-Eccles Stadium “praying my guts out” as BYU quarterback John Beck scanned the field and found tight end Jonny Harline for a game-winning touchdown. And when he felt like Utah fans were heckling his father, former BYU defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi, a young Devin rose to shout them down.

“It was hostile,” he recalled this week with a grin. “I remember my mom said, ‘That’s it! No more rivalry games for you!”

There would, of course, be more BYU-Utah games in Kaufusi’s future. But after growing up a “through-and-through” diehard in Provo, playing two seasons for the Cougars, and then transferring to rival Utah in 2020, the game means something different to Kaufusi now. For those who have been on both sides of it, rivalry week is a kinder, gentler experience.

“I’m just super grateful for both programs,” Kaufusi said. “Ten-year-old me wouldn’t believe where I’m at right now. But I have a lot of good memories in that stadium, and I’m having a good time here.”

Saturday night’s game will be the 101st meeting between Utah and BYU, and any century-old rivalry has been marked and marred by plenty of bad blood.

The two schools are currently under contract to play six more football games after this season, their schedules set through 2030. With BYU expected to join the Big 12 Conference after a formal invitation Friday and Utah focused on ascending the ranks of the Pac-12, the future of the rivalry is being written now.

Some would prefer to say good riddance.

Others simply want good vibes.

“There are really good people all over college football, especially in the rivalry game,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said this week. “I think it is really good for the soul to wish good things on people. I want to beat Utah but, after the game, I wish them success and hope they do well.”

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has stoked the flames by refusing to call it a rivalry, opting instead to call Saturday’s matchup the “in-state game”. But Whittingham has plenty of respect for Sitake, a former Utes assistant, and the Cougars as Utah takes its nine-game series winning streak to Provo.

“Nothing lasts forever,” Whittingham said. “The preparation will be key. It’s not the emotional part of it, or how many wins in a row, or any of that stuff. You’ve got to prepare the right way.”

Wide receiver Samson Nacua isn’t quite sure what to prepare for when he takes the field Saturday night. Nacua has played in the rivalry game before. He has flashed the U in Provo. When he sees the Utes this time, however, Nacua will be wearing a different color.

“Honestly it’s something that’s so hard to describe,” Nacua said of his feelings heading into his first rivalry game since transferring to BYU earlier this year. “I’ve been in red and I’ve heard the thunder over there and I’ve felt what it felt like to play in red and I loved every moment of it. Now I’m starting to experience a little bit of the blue and, honestly, I just say I love both teams. I love both of them for taking chances on me and accepting me for me. I don’t know if I love one more than the other.”

BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, who coached at Utah from 2005-16, understands.

“You could switch the two locker rooms and you wouldn’t really know the difference,” he said. “It’s just a bunch of college football players that want to win a game. The rivalry means something. We all want to win. But there’s a lot more in common than there is different.”

As he stood on the practice field in Salt Lake City this week, Kaufusi listed off the friends and family members who have played at BYU or Utah and reflected on what the schools have meant to them.

“All I can think about is where my family came from, starting with my grandparents from Tonga,” he said. “Their whole reason was to help us have a better life here. Education was the No. 1 goal and sports was able to open that door for us. Right now I can’t help but feel grateful.”

Kaufusi said he expects to hear it from fans and friends when he shows up at LaVell Edwards Stadium in red. That’s what he would have done as a kid.

But Nacua was hoping for something different.

“Man, I hope I get a big cheer because it was not easy making the decision, for sure, leaving my team up there,” he said. “I hope they still have love for me because I still have so much love for them in my heart.”

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