Utah's last four meetings with BYU have produced some of the Utes' best moments of those seasons, mixed with long periods of unproductive football.
The Utes failed to score in the last 49 minutes of the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl. The following September, the offense lost six turnovers. Utah settled for four field goals in Provo in 2017. And last November, the Utes’ first offensive points came in the final minute of the third quarter.
And yet, Utah won them all, part of an eight-game winning streak in the series. The Utes can tie the rivalry record (shared by each school) with a ninth victory Thursday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Recent history evokes two key questions: What happens if the Utes, for once, play the full 60 minutes vs. BYU? Or, viewed another way, can Utah keep getting away with incomplete performances against the Cougars?
The rivals’ season-opening meeting creates a short, nine-month turnaround that makes Utah’s 35-27 win instructive. Here are four takeaways from November that apply to Thursday’s reunion:
Utah became dominant, just in time
The Utes were behind 27-7 when they took the ball at their 25-yard line with 5:28 remaining in the third quarter. The remarkable part of Utah’s 28-0 run is it didn’t stem from any BYU turnovers. The Utes just started playing better. Utah produced four touchdown drives and stopped the Cougars four times.
“We started fast, but we didn't finish,” BYU tight end Matt Bushman said this summer.
So is it as simple as a case of the Utes dominating, once they got serious? Maybe. Ute coach Kyle Whittingham's retelling of his halftime speech offers a clue: “Are you willing to get pushed around again like that in the second half and kind of sleepwalk?”
The Utes were in a difficult spot psychologically, being congratulated all week after winning the Pac-12 South title and looking ahead to the conference championship game vs. Washington. How much of a role that played in their struggles vs. BYU might be revealed Thursday, one way or another.
“You look at where we gave up plays last year, a lot of it was just [not] playing assignment-sound,” said Ute defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. But “it wasn’t people overlooking [BYU] or anything like that. Our guys played hard. [BYU] made plays.”
The Utes couldn’t run the ball consistently
Replacing an injured Zack Moss, Armand Shyne rushed for 174 yards in a win over Oregon. BYU held Shyne (who has since transferred to Texas Tech) to 47 yards on 15 carries, although he ran for two short touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Moss will return to action against BYU, Whittingham said Monday. Yet nothing about the November game suggests Utah merely can line up and pound the ball Thursday. Whittingham is curious about his offensive line, “seeing how they come together and function as a unit,” he said. “We’ve always prided ourselves on being a physical team and running the football. In order to do that, you’ve got to knock people off the ball. We’ll see what happens. … That’s a stout defense they’re going against.”
Utah barely managed to convert two fourth-down plays, runs by Shyne and quarterback Jason Shelley, extending TD drives.
Ute QB Tyler Huntley, who passed for 300 yards in Provo in 2017, was sidelined by a broken collarbone in November. He'll be vital to Utah's offense.
Zach Wilson’s arm and feet were effective
Scalley had only one public criticism of his defense after Utah’s first scrimmage of preseason camp this month: The Utes lacked discipline in their pass-rushing lanes.
The unspoken reference was to BYU quarterback Zach Wilson's successful scrambling in November. Wilson ran for 91 yards (before subtracting sack yardage), including a 31-yard gain. He also passed for 204 yards, and Scalley remembers one throw, in particular: “Wilson fits a nice seam ball, right in the middle of the field,” against a blitz.
Wilson will enter the game with a streak of 19 completions — having gone 18 of 18 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl vs. Western Michigan. His last pass against Utah went to Bushman and the tight end was tackled a yard short of a first down.
Bushman created matchup problems for Utah
Bushman may have been under utilized last season, but he was brilliant vs. Utah with six catches for 92 yards.
Scalley has thought all summer about matching up with Bushman, who thrived one-on-one against linebackers and defensive backs as BYU moved him around in the formation. He also made a one-handed reception on the sideline, while being well covered by former Ute linebacker Cody Barton.
Utah will have two new starters at linebacker, Francis Bernard and Devin Lloyd.
“Much of the first quarter of the first game,” Scalley said, “is trying to figure out, what are they trying to do to us? What's new? What haven't we seen on film? And being able to adjust.”
The Utes succeeded last November, in the end. Now comes the start of another season, with more questions to be answered.
COMEBACK OR COLLAPSE?
Five critical plays in Utah's 28-0 surge to a 35-27 win over BYU last November:
4th/1 at BYU 35: With Utah trailing 27-7, quarterback Jason Shelley keeps the ball and gains 1 yard for a first down.
3rd/9 at BYU 26: With BYU leading 27-14, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes plays conservatively and Riley Burt is stopped after a 4-yard run, then Rhett Almond’s punt travels 15 yards.
3rd/5 at BYU 14: BYU defensive back Keenan Ellis’ pass-interference penalty moves the ball to the 2, then Utah’s touchdown makes it 27-21.
3rd/8 at BYU 42: Grimes gives Zach Wilson a passing opportunity, but Leki Fotu’s sack forces another punt.
4th/1 at 50: Utah’s Armand Shyne picks up 2 yards, sustaining the go-ahead TD drive.