Utah's rout of BYU in November 2004 completed the Utes' unbeaten regular season and almost guaranteed them a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. Fans flooded the field and placed a sombrero on quarterback Alex Smith's head.
Four years later, another Utah victory in the rivalry game kept the Utes undefeated and assured them of a spot in a major bowl. Quarterback Brian Johnson took the microphone at midfield and asked fans where they wanted to go: Miami, New Orleans or Arizona?
Saturday night’s rivalry game is different. Regardless of what happens against BYU at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Utes know they will be playing Friday in the Pac-12 championship game with a Rose Bowl berth at stake. That opportunity gives an entirely new dimension to the series, even as the game temporarily returns to its traditional late-November date.
The celebrations of Utah's appearances in the '04 Fiesta Bowl and the '08 Sugar Bowls were made exponentially greater when the Utes had to beat BYU to get there. That's not true of their potential Rose Bowl appearance, and that's why BYU's Kalani Sitake is the only coach who could say this week, “This is the most important game of the year for us.”
The game is not unimportant to Utah. Coach Kyle Whittingham made that clear by saying the Utes would use all of their available personnel Saturday, as opposed to saving players for Friday’s meeting with Washington in Santa Clara, Calif. That’s not necessarily because the opponent is BYU, though. Whittingham wants to honor his seniors, and resting players simply is not standard practice in college football, as opposed to the NFL.
In the Pac-12′s usual schedule, Utah would be playing this week at Colorado, probably needing a win to advance to the conference title game. That part is behind the Utes, so their levels of emotion and concentration are Saturday’s biggest variables, after winning the program’s first Pac-12 South title. Team leaders including offensive tackle Jackson Barton and linebacker Chase Hansen insist the Utes have more to do, starting with their Senior Night vs. BYU.
In practical football terms, Saturday's biggest issue is whether BYU can sustain any kind of running game against a Ute defense that ranks No. 5 nationally against the run, allowing 95.5 yards. Sitake's teams are 0-12 when failing to rush for 100 yards.
Psychologically, the question is how seriously the Utes will take BYU. The Utes' seven-game winning streak is two short of the series record shared by the schools. Co-captain Tyler Huntley, Utah’s injured quarterback, tweeted (and deleted) his view that the competition is “Not Even A Rivalry Anymore,” with a poo symbol and a sleeping face emoji.
BYU (6-5) also is bowl-eligible. In any case, the opportunity that’s already promised to the Utes (8-3) next week makes this Utah-BYU game unlike any other in history. They haven’t met in the last game of the regular season since 2010, as Mountain West members. Who knows when these teams again will play in November? They’re booked for the first or second week of the season through 2022.
In June, when the coaches appeared at a charity event, Sitake said this year’s date would “feel more familiar,” adding, “I kind of like it at the end, where you can just kind of empty the tank.”
Whittingham said, “It's in the traditional spot, which people were used to for years and years. It'll have more of the feel it used to have, the buildup … for the entire season.”
That part is true, with common opponents (Arizona, Washington and Northern Illinois) framing their schedules. The teams have evolved, due to injuries and other developments. BYU’s Zach Wilson or Utah’s Jason Shelley will become only the second freshman quarterback to win the rivalry game, following Utah’s Darnell Arceneaux in 1997.
The unknown factor of how the QBs will perform is a key part of this rivalry game, along with the usual elements. There's coaching staff crossover, including BYU quarterback coach Aaron Roderick's facing his former employer. High school reunions will occur, featuring BYU's Devin Kaufusi and Utah's Britain Covey from Timpview and BYU's Talon Shumway and Utah's Hansen from Lone Peak, plus the phenomenon of Ute linebacker Francis Bernard and BYU's Austin Lee playing against their former schools.
In that sense, Utah-BYU will be the same as ever, even if these circumstances are unique.
BYU AT NO. 18 UTAH
At Rice-Eccles Stadium
Kickoff: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Radio: KSL 1160, ESPN 700.
Records: BYU 6-5; Utah 8-3.
Series history: Utah leads, 57-31-4.
Last meeting: Utah 19, BYU 13 (2017).
About the Cougars: BYU ranks 23rd nationally in total defense (327.6 yards) and 107th in total offense (354.3 yards). … The Cougars are 2-2 this season vs. Power Five opponents, with wins over Arizona and Wisconsin and losses to California and Washington, all in September. … BYU has led Utah only briefly in any of the seven rivalry games since an overtime win in 2009.
About the Utes: Coach Kyle Whittingham is 9-3 vs. BYU, where he played as a linebacker. … Sophomore receiver Britain Covey needs two catches to reach 100 for his career. … Utah will introduce 13 seniors in a pregame ceremony; receiver Derrick Vickers won’t be among them, as the school will seek another year’s eligibility for him.