Gordon Monson: Blurred in a suddenly-lost rivalry, BYU football owes it to itself to get better

After 100 years, the future of the BYU-Utah State series is uncertain.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Brigham Young Brigham Young Cougars pose for a photo with the Wagon Wheel, after they defeated the Utah State Aggies 38-26, at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022.

They say Thursday night’s BYU-Utah State game may have the distinction of being the punctuation on a century-old football series. It certainly wasn’t a period. It wasn’t a question mark, was it? No, it was an exclamation point! Or two!! Or three!!! Or, wait a minute, was it an ellipsis …

Whatever it was, many believed the punctuation would be a beatdown, but it turned out to be something different. It was sloppy, at times. It was revealing, at others. It was anything but flawless, mistakes galore.

But it was competitive throughout, worthy of what has been put to rest, what should not be put to rest, but what the king of college football — money — these days demands to be ended: a rivalry.


BYU and Utah State, then, are neighbors who are about to become strangers.

The final numbers on the board, though, which ended up tilting to the Cougars’ favor — 38-26 — demonstrated what rivalries can do. They can take teams in opposite realms and slam them together, kicking talent to the side, tossing out what should be automatic and making it uncertain.

All of which is to say, passion has its place, its effect, and that was evident on Thursday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium, boosting the 25-point-underdog Aggies, enabling a team that had scored just 62 points this season, while allowing 144, a team that had lost to Alabama, 55-zip, and to Weber State, 35-7, to hang with the 19th-ranked Cougars for three quarters, at least, finally folding to their designated fate in the fourth.

That’s one way of looking at it.

BYU, on the other hand, might confess, as a way of complimenting itself, that it played down to its sorry opponent. USU this time around is not a good football team.

And yet, there the Aggies were, leading in the second quarter, tied 17-17 at the half, having more than doubled up the Cougars in yards gained over that span, flushing out the same BYU weaknesses that had emerged in some of the Cougars’ earlier games — difficulty stopping the run (147 rushing yards for USU before the break), trouble gaining yards on the ground on their own attack (minus-22 yards), an unreliable kicking game, and a habit of committing dumb penalties.

In the second half, other than ongoing missed kicks, BYU tamped those down considerably, in some cases fully correcting them. Its defense thumped the Aggies down the stretch, and caused three turnovers, the Cougars churned to over triple figures in rushing yards and they partially stopped making ridiculous errors.

The one consistent thing, the thing nobody can deny, is that Jaren Hall is BYU’s best player, first half, second half, every half, every game. The quarterback has reached a point where he knows his team’s success is draped over his shoulders, especially his right one, and he’s comfortable with that.

Hall wound up with decent-if-not-spectacular numbers — 274 passing yards, hitting 17 of 27 throws for three touchdowns and no picks. While other elements of BYU football undulate up and down and all around, Hall is calmly there, come what may.

The other stuff must be corrected as the Cougars head into games against Notre Dame and Arkansas. In total, BYU yielded 204 rushing yards, and gained 117 yards on the ground. All told, it was flagged 10 times, and missed two field goals.

When Kalani Sitake recently said his team was not where he thought it would be at this stage of the season, not as settled as it should be, his evaluation was bang on, and his frustration continued against USU.

Let’s say it all plain here. If the Cougars don’t improve, losses are in their near future. Hall cannot do everything himself.

As for Utah State playing BYU, and BYU playing Utah State, rivalries like this should never end. Should. Never. End. Doesn’t matter if the games are lopsided. Doesn’t matter if the series is lopsided. Doesn’t matter if one of the teams heads off to a bigger, better conference. Doesn’t matter what the dollar demands.

BYU fans might say the game has no upside for the Cougars, using the same reasoning that some Utah fans threw down on BYU when the Utes went to the Pac-12. It’s the ultimate trash talk, putting the other guys in their lowly place. But some traditions do, in fact, have value and are worth preserving.

These schools have played football against one another for longer than anyone who is still alive can remember. They went up against each other before anyone thought about TV money, before anyone called for a college football playoff, before anyone positioned themselves for advantageous league affiliation, although both BYU and Utah had been known in the long-ago past to stab Utah State in the back when it came to earlier conference arrangements. But that’s all history.

As is the BYU-USU series now … probably, unfortunately.

The Big 12 came calling and the Cougars started leaning away, even before that invitation. Utah has done the same, when it joined the Pac-12.

A lot has changed since this series began. Here’s the thing, though: Change as those things might, the two schools will remain, same as it ever was, same as it ever will be, 105 miles apart, as the California Gull flies, 125 miles apart as the horse-and-buggy trots, the old wagon wheel rolls, the Ford Model-T rumbled and the Tesla Model S now glides.

Another rocksteady reality: Each of the schools will go on playing some brand of football.

Why not go on finding one weekend a year to play against each other?

We all know, the almighty king will not allow it. The love of the king. And somewhere the greats of the past on both sides — from Merlin Olsen to Gary Sheide to Eric Hipple to Bill Ring, and a thousand more, wherever they are — for just a moment, grabbed some pine on Thursday night and bowed a head.

You could guess that even the man whose name is on BYU’s stadium, Edwards himself, who played for the Aggies and made Cougar football what it is, who loved this rivalry, was less than pleased as the curtain came down and the elongated sentence was punctuated.